John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ is an underappreciated classic

Roddy Piper kicks ass in 'They Live'
Roddy Piper kicks ass in ‘They Live’

Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, and Raymond St. Jacques
Director(s): John Carpenter
Writer(s): Screenplay by John Carpenter, based upon the short story, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, by Ray Nelson

This film is quite simply one of the most underappreciated John Carpenter films ever made. It’s been several years since I’d seen it, and was pretty excited when I saw the DVD on sale for $10 at Best Buy.

It’s funny, it’s fun, it’s smart sci-fi. More idea that flash, it puts Roddy Piper center stage in the starring role as a drifter who stumbles upon a deadly secret: our country has fallen victim to a hostile take over by a corporate-like breed of aliens.

No big ships, no massive explosions. Instead of laser guns and starships, they used our own failing to enslave us.

And we don’t even know it.

They Live is probably the most cynical of any of Carpenter’s films. Here, humanity falls victim to its own failings. Its own greed, ambivalence, selfishness. Some simply struggle to survive as jobs dry up, while others collaborate with the aliens in exchange for money.

We’re introduced immediately to Piper as John Nada — catch that name? — who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. Finding no help from employment services, he talks his way into a gig at a local construction site. There he meets Frank, played by the always awesome Keith David.

Frank helps Nada find a place to stay, which is basically a makeshift community living in an empty lot. The community consists of other people similar to Nada, people who have lost their jobs and are struggle to make a few bucks in a country that seems to have become disgusted and disinterested in the lower class.

Aliens in 'They Live'
Aliens in ‘They Live’

Nada soon begins to discover that something else is going on in the small community he’s come to call home. That some of its residents have uncovered something, and are struggling to get the truth out. With the use of special sunglasses, Nada learns that the world is not what it seems.

Secret messages are everywhere. Messages geared towards controlling humanity. Twisting them to worship money, buy goods, own big cars and fancy homes. Nada also discovers that people are also not what they seem.

When he wears his glasses, he sees that some people are really hideous aliens in disguise.

Like many kids in the 80s, I watched the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). And while “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was the head bad guy back then, he was a character I liked. His “redemption” and retirement from the WWF was classic. As John Nada, I thought he turned out an strong, understated performance. His dialogue is pretty limited, but that one was of the elements of the character I really liked. And he delivered his one liners with precision. They may have been a bit cheesy, but always good for a laugh.

Keith David as the reluctant friend is also terrific. The fight sequence between him and Piper is fun as heck. The two just beat the snot out of one another. Two massive, muscular guys going at it, and the mixture of a few classic wrestling moves were perfect. Meg Foster, who appears as a cable station employee, is as creepy as always. Her bright blue eyes were also captivating.

The music is also subtle yet dead on for the film. John Carpenter has made a habit of creating — or co-creating, as in this case — the music for all his movies. Simple guitar riffs make up the bulk of music and the simplicity of it sets the right mood for the film.

One of the things that I like the most about Carpenter’s films is his often unexpected endings. You never know what to expect with his films, because the main character may not survive. Or may do something that will destroy all technology on the planet. Or the bad guys may not really be dead, and return to kill everyone. His unconventional endings are part of what make his films extremely entertaining.

One of the things that I love the most about the DVDs to some of Carpenter’s films is his commentary. Sadly, this DVD has nothing.

And I mean, nothing. Not even a trailer. It’s just a throwaway DVD that doesn’t do this film justice. The transfer quality is fine, but I would love to see this move get the commentary treatment. Listen to Carpenter talk about the process he went through to make the film. See the trailers, and maybe even a documentary or two.

Do you hear me Universal? Give us a better DVD of this classic sci-fi movie!

Anyone out there in cyberspace?

Hello?

Rated: R
Run Time: 1 hr., 33 mins.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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