Conceptually, They Live is probably John Carpenter’s best film. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Carpenter, the concept is better than the execution.
Of the “modern” horrormeisters, Carpenter has always been the lightweight. The closest he got to a theme seemed to be in Halloween, with its implicit message that girls who “fooled around” get offed by the Boogeyman, but plucky virgins don’t.
They Live is different. It’s a highly political work predicated on the idea that aliens are living among us, controlling us with subliminal messages. These aliens don’t look like us, but they have a means of making it appear that they do. However, there’s an underground that realizes what’s going on and has developed these sunglasses that allow their wearers to see the subliminal messages and the aliens as they really are.
A pair of these glasses fall into the hands of Nada (wrestler Roddy Piper), an unemployed construction worker, so he sees the messages — “Marry and reproduce,” “No independent thought,” Consume,” “Buy,” “Stay asleep,” “Obey,” “Do not question authority,” etc. — as well as the aliens. It’s a great idea and it’s handled nicely, especially when Nada sees a politician on TV spouting what is clearly a George Bush (the first one) speech and discovers that the politician is an alien. “It figures it would be something like this,” he comments.
Witty, clever and definitely a statement. Problem is — aside from the comically cheesy alien makeup — Carpenter has no real idea what to do with the premise, so the movie quickly degenerates into a standard actioner, albeit a fairly tightly made one. It doesn’t help that Roddy Piper is no actor and casting him was a pathetic attempt to find a bargain-basement Kurt Russell. Russell might have pulled it off, especially since lines like the famous “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass — and I’m all out of bubble gum” are pretty obviously written with him in mind.
Worth seeing? Yes, if only for the idea. Otherwise, They Live is a pretty enjoyable actioner with some nice supporting players to help keep it going.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Asheville Community Resource Center is showing They Live at 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug.18. The ACRC is at 16 Carolina Lane downtown. Donations will be accepted.]