Thursday, February 20, 2014

They Live (1988)

"I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum". A revisiting of John Carpenter's cult classic "They Live" (1988) is as joyful as the gusto with which Roddy Piper's character of John Nada mouths these lines. And sure enough the beefed up jock protagonist and his buddy Frank (Keith David) kick some major ass in the film!

For all those familiar with the John Carpenter breed of cinema, "They Live" is as good as it gets in the 80s! A repetitive score with a thick bass and harmonica composed by the filmmaker himself fills the air as the quintessential body builder backpacker drifter hero (Roddy Piper, the star of Wrestlemania!) complete with long blonde hair and denim threads makes his entry on the streets of L.A. Soon he gets a job as a construction worker, befriends another muscle man Frank (Keith David, always excellent), and then pretty soon senses something fishy while walking around the camp for homeless labourers where he is put up.

It is a matter of time before he stumbles upon a startling discovery, a box full of sunglasses, that make the wearer see the real world, in which the members of the ruling class, law enforcers, and big corporate honchos, TV show hosts are all actually ugly aliens, their faces resembling those of decomposing corpses, disguised as humans....or as Nada describes in one epic scene "Formaldehyde-face"! 

Upon wearing the glasses one can see the true face of the world; all mass media including banners, hoardings, TV channels, magazines are actually the sources of subliminal messages that ask hypnotized citizens to obey, consume and conform to authority. The world is all black and white while the real, all colour happy world is an illusion! 

Turns out the aliens have a masterplan that thrives on exploiting the working class. But a group is onto their plan, and they are, little by little, creating an army, a resistance movement that's on a mission to put an end to the alien menace.

"They Live" provides a clever twist to the apocalyptic tales Carpenter has churned out before. It has a super fantastic concept at its center and while Carpenter doesn't fully flesh it out like one would expect, he delivers a sumptuous blend of horror, sci-fi, comedy, satire and even Ed Wood Jr. style B-film aesthetics in the form of devices like tub-shaped flying saucers and teleporting devices in the form of wrist watches! 

So expect a good amount of well written scenes, including a familiar device of a priest's ominous, prophetic ramblings about an impending doom, and oft interrupted TV signals that are replaced with warning messages about them

And those who miss the good old fist fights, there is an almost five minute long fist fight sequence between the two heroes following an argument about wearing sunglasses! This part may be a little trying but it is fun nevertheless. 

The initial discovery part of the whole alien conspiracy is the best part of the film, and it is followed by the crackdown which although heart-thumping and action packed is filled with typical action movie cliches. Nonetheless, a substantial amount of twists and turns are thrown in to keep one on the edge, and there's a good bit of humour to ensure comedic entertainment. 

Sample these awesome lines:

Nada: "I am giving you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can."
Frank: "Not this year!"

While the above description may give the viewer an impression that this is a superficial sci-fi action comedy film, rest assured, the undertones that the film's concept comes with will leave you surprised! "They Live" is a solid slab of subversive cinema that revels in its eighties aesthetics (including a macho hero and fitting soundtrack for such a persona), and deliberate campiness and yet delivers a strong allegorical story that takes jibes at consumerism, the capitalist economy and the ruling class. 

All those at the authoritative positions are deemed as masked individuals blinding the working class and exploiting them through subtle mind control. Covering one's eyes with the special glasses in fact, makes the blind see reality! Find also a blink-and-miss self reference to John Carpenter himself in a scene that takes a veiled dig at Siskel and Ebert.

Performances are mostly middling. While Piper makes for a good commanding presence, his acting and dialog delivery leave a lot to be desired despite getting to mouth some of the best lines. Meg Foster appears with her famous eyes, makeup accentuated, and wears but one expression throughout the film. It is Keith David that shines in his bit part as usual!

There are few films that will guarantee a fun-filled ninety minutes without insulting the viewers' intelligence. "They Live" is one of them. It provides an eclectic mix of various genres and also has an extremely interesting and original concept at its center. Rediscover this film now! This is a surefire entertainer for the entire family.

Score: 8/10


1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up bro! I wholly agree: They Live 1988 ★★★★

    Watched Apr 04, 2015
    Rod Sedgwick’s review:
    ''Brother, life's a bitch... and she's back in heat.''

    There is a reason why 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper doesn't say a hell of a lot for the first half of They Live, as it is soon enough revealed that he is not much more than a quotable line delivery vessel. But in saying that, I do like his presence and muted performance and think it works in the context of the film. I think this film has some great ideas and succeeds (although not terribly deeply) as a interesting social commentary beneath the shades, and I had a lot of fun with its B-movieness sensibilities, even the ridiculously entertaining alley-way fight at the center of the film. A cult classic for all the right reason (its legacy still lives on in pop-culture), and a Carpenter flick I will no doubt return to when I have some beers under my belt.