a critiQal film review They Live (1988)

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Plot: A drifter (Piper) stumbles across a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the world as it is - complete with subliminal messaging like "Buy", "Stay Asleep" and "No Imagination"...and aliens disguised as humans.

Reviewed
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I’d heard a lot about John Carpenter’s now-classic film They Live. Almost as much, in fact, as its more famous brethren (including Escape from New York (1981)). Still, I’d always been hesitant to give it a try, thanks to it’s famous wrestling star, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Coming out when it did, at a time when fellow wrestler Hulk Hogan had graduated into making (mostly) bad films like Mr. Nanny, I shied away from anything with a wrestler as a star.

Now, however, The Rock has come out and redefined what it means to be a wrestler-turned-movie star. He showed that a film doesn’t have to be truly awful anymore to enlist a wrestler (paving the way for everything from Kane’s See No Evil (2006) to Blade: Trinity (2004) with Triple H and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s The Condemned (2007)). So, I decided to give “Rowdy” Roddy and John Carpenter’s flick They Live a try. Would it prove to be worth the effort after so long?

Roddy Piper isn’t exactly the consummate actor in They Live (no surprise there). He does manage to play everyday Joe (albeit a bit over-muscled everyday Joe) much better than expected. The film doesn’t do a lot to expand on his past. That means he comes in cold to the viewers at the start and has to win them over all by himself. It’s something he actually seems to want to do, even if his success rate isn’t impressive. Spending most of the film fighting off an nearly overwhelming urge to sleep (and making the viewer stifle a yawn or two of their own) isn’t great. But, he still plunges gung-ho into one-man army mode, and gains some much needed acting help from another enlistee further down the road, Keith David.

The rest of the cast is rather ho-hum themselves, with only Meg Foster’s strange sparkly eyes making her stand out. That’s more due to the viewer casting her in a role in the lizard-aliens-among-us show V (TV) (the original version) rather than any real acting prowess on her part.

An obvious comment on out-of-control consumerism in America, They Live manages to bring an interesting idea to the screen, albeit in a way that seems completely outdated these days. A TV signal, which apparently bounces off satellites to spread across the entire world, covers up the surprisingly bleak (and apparently black-and-white) world underneath. That hidden world includes basic subliminal messages that abound everywhere, with basic concepts like “No Imagination”, “Stay Asleep” and “Buy”. Oh yeah, it also hides the fact that there are numerous aliens among us, apparently hear just to “slum it” on the still-evolving planet of Earth.

While the idea that messages are hidden beneath the ordinary things of everyday life trying to conform us to a population of consumer sheep for the corporations isn’t new. In fact, scares of subliminal messaging coercing the general public have been around since the McCarthy era and before. But, the fact that aliens are behind it all, and the upcoming planned world domination – not because they’re evil but because they seem to be bored on their home world – is something new and surprisingly frightening.

When aliens attack, it’s usually because either they are afraid of what they don’t understand (Earthlings); they are fleeing from some cataclysm on their home planet; or they think Earthlings are inferior beings that need to be ruled over. While the idea of a more dominant race is frightening, at least their reasoning isn’t so far different from our own. After all, those same three reasons would be why Earthlings attack other planets. But, when the aliens are taking over our world simply because they are bored? Well, that mindset is truly alien, and makes the attacking race scarier, even if they aren’t much to look at face-to-face.

The special effects are typical of an 80’s camp film like They Live: not much to look at, and rather obviously bad in retrospect. Apparently, these aliens have stripped away the skin entirely, leaving the skeleton to show through (or are simply animated corpses – the movie never actually explains it). These special effects are downright pathetic by today’s standards. While those effects are bad even for 1988, the film’s use of other effects – including the sunglasses revealing a bleak world devoid of all color – help make up for the unimpressive alien countenances.

So, the acting isn’t exactly top-notch, and the aliens aren’t much to look at, and the “consumer as sheep” idea is nothing new. Even so, John Carpenter still manages to make They Live decently enjoyable. Sure, the plot twists can be seen coming from miles away. The campiness of the film helps the viewer know it never takes itself too seriously…and they shouldn’t either, if they want to have a little fun watching it.

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