Retro Review: John Carpenter’s They Live (1988)

This article was published on the original Sorry I’m on 22/07/09.

They Live

An unemployed drifter on the move, George Nada (Piper) finds work labouring in an LA construction site as well as discovering some lodging at a local shantytown. Soon Nada discovers that a nearby church is a front for a mysterious rebel group which possess motives of unknown nature. When the shantytown and the rebel front is bombarded and destroyed by police, Nada finds something that the insurgent group was stockpiling – rad 80’s sunglasses. These sunglasses, however, hold much darker secrets – they allow the wearer the see the world as it truly is – full of subliminal advertising aimed at controlling humans, and all at the hand of aliens living among us! A paranoid Nada is now on an unstoppable path for answers: he’s here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and unfortunately for the ghoul-like aliens, he’s all out of bubblegum.

No-one does 80’s style B-movie classics quite like John Carpenter. A Sorry I’m favourite, Carpenter here, as always, has a message to deliver – this one about corruption, commercialism and 80’s style excess. His throwbacks to 1950’s paranoia themed movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are evident – even down to the out-and-out cheesy special effects (Go, flying saucer, go!). Sublimely slow paced and low-key, They Live is probably Carpenter’s most intelligently written observation of the times (still relevant, perhaps?), but don’t let that fool you – this movie has enough silly B-movie shenanigans to make a truly entertaining feature. What may said shenanigans be, you ask? Well…

– One liner’s? Hell yeah.

– Killer, low budget action set pieces? Umm, yup.

– Piper giving the finger to the aliens in one final act of defiance? It’s right here.

– And the final coup de grace of awesome, when Nada’s only ally (perennial bad-ass Keith David) won’t wear the sunglasses, what happens? A five and a half minute fistfight, that’s what. Awesome. Definitely a moment of filmic significance, even parodied on South Park’s Cripple Fight episode, blow for blow.

Plucked straight from the squared-circle of the then WWF, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper gives an amazing performance. He looks like a guy that has been through a lot, and really underplays the paranoia and disbelief for a while. That is, until he hits a moment where the character seems to snap and he’s on a mission for answers and he’ll take everyone with him. Performing in front of thousands of people in a wrestling ring was great practice for when Nada snaps, because when Piper hams it up, he hams it up with force. It’s just a shame Hollywood never caught on to Piper, because he plays cheesey-80’s-rugged action-hero very well.

But it’s not perfect. The film’s slow burn dies in the final act as a jarringly fast series events speed towards the conclusion. And as with many Carpenter flicks, his ideas are larger than his available palette of tools to work with, and although that’s what many, myself included, find charming about his films, audiences nowadays are spoiled with even the lamest trash getting decent budgets.

Did I 
say the word ‘awesome’ a lot during this review? If I did it’s because this movie’s awesome! A true cult classic in every sense.  If you don’t like this movie I hate you.

– Well, I pretty much mentioned them all above, didn’t I?

– Do you like low-budget B-Movies?
– Meg Foster. Kinda creepy.

– The Matrix
– Escape From New York
– John Carpenter’s The Thing

Directed by:John Carpenter
Written by: “Frank Armitage” (John Carpenter)
Produced by: Larry J. Franco
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Distributed by: Universal
Budget: $3 million (est)
Run length: 93 minutes
Australian Release:18 May 1989

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