Movie Review: They Live

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A drifter comes across a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the aliens and subliminal messages all around us.

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John Carpenter, 1988

When a drifter, referred to as “Nada” (Roddy Piper), arrives in Los Angeles looking for work, he starts seeing signs that society is deteriorating. Some hackes are sending messages through the TV each night that suggest that someone is taking over society and keeping people “sleeping” with their signal. He discovers their hide-out and, after a night of brutal attacks by various authority figures and riots from the people, he discovers a special pair of sunglasses that allows him to see through the “signal” to the truth. Everywhere he looks he sees messages like “OBEY”, “CONSUME”, and “STAY ASLEEP”, and the upper class is full of roach-skeleton things posing as humans. He goes on a mission to destroy the creatures and get other humans to see the truth.

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Another John Carpenter scifi flick from the 80s, this is considered a classic by a lot of people. Given how much I love pretty much every other Carpenter movie I figured I’d like this as well. I figured mostly wrong. There’s a cheese factor to this film I couldn’t get past. Former wrestler Roddy Piper is a terrible block of wood of an actor for a film to revolve around. He’s given some good support from Thing alum Keith David and blue-eyed Meg Foster, whose introduction implied that she might actually be a sensibile leading lady until poor writing intervenes. There’s some interesting if obvious social commentary – it’s a very cynical movie that suggests that pretty much anybody with money is evil – but its delivery is clunky. While Big Trouble in Little China was joyfully and humourously cheesy and made that work for the movie, this film takes itself much more seriously. There are a few classic lines (“I’m all out of bubblegum”), but it comes out of nowhere from that character. There’s not a lot of plot to speak of – the film rides on its central concept without really trying in either the storyline or character department.

The social relevance of the movie is, er, relevant now more than ever, with the class difference such a hot topic these days. It’s a fitting commentary on the excess of the 80s, although women seem to be the target of this rage more than men, and there is really only one role for a woman in the movie. More than that, it just wasn’t that exciting or interesting: there’s a fight scene between Piper and David that I swear lasts twenty minutes, a whole scene of the two of them pummeling each other while Nada tries to force his friend to wear special magic sunglasses. There are some huge plotholes. At one point the scientists who hacked the TV say that the aliens think of us as “livestock”, but I don’t remember humans ever colonising livestock and trying to live amongst them. The aliens are actually very thinly sketched, which is somewhat disappointing. The score is great but repetitive, very consistent throughout. There was so much promise that I guess I’m just disappointed by how flat this movie left me feeling.

They Live on IMDb

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