At the Movies with Alan Gekko: They Live

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action Horror/ Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Raymond St. Jacques, George Buck Flower, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, Susan Blanchard, Norman Alden/ Runtime: 94 minutes

Well movie lovers they may live, but have no fear! I say that because the dynamic duo that is Roddy Piper and Keith David are here to pop some bubble gum and deliver a serious beat down to some pesky alien butt in the film I am reviewing today. A little film known as They Live, and which serves as iconic film helmer John Carpenter’s absolutely riveting sci-fi satire dealing with modern society’s unwitting entrapment to literally everything from our own consumer-based society all the way to politics. Indeed it is honestly the defining film for conspiracy theorists (or those who thought trickle-down economics was its own entry in the horror film pantheon, but that’s another story). Be that as it may be this is still a riveting saga that showcases the perils of what can happen when a populace is both blind and jaw-droppingly naïve to not only just what is going on around them, but also just who is in charge and what would happen if those in charge actually were planning to harm us all even whilst showering us with a false sense of security and/or protection. Of course it should be noted that this film is still a fictional piece (at least I hope that is the case; after all I haven’t seen any aliens in disguise as people running around lately), but there are still truths to be found. Truths that are not only blared at the audience at the volume of a fog horn, but also are showcased in a quite simplistic manner of being showcased and dealt with in the movie though it isn’t a couple of rough and tumble amigos and a few guns can’t handle. Above all though, it is the social commentary that is quite immersive and at the heart of the tale rather than the superficial action beats which ensure that this film is a true blue triumph of surprisingly intellectual cinematic fare.

The plot is as follows: They Live tells the story of a man by the name of Nada. This is a man whose path in life is that of a drifter but who, when the film opens, is starting to panic. It seems that Nada is starting to slowly, but surely finding his opportunities both personally and professionally in life dry up. If it is any consolation though dear reader, it is not due to lack of effort on the part of our hero. That is because, despite his drifter lifestyle, is a genuinely good guy who is tough, filled with integrity, and is an ardent believer in the power of both hard work and self-sufficiency. Soon enough though Lady Fate shines on our hero and helps not only get a job working construction, but also in befriending a co-worker by the name of Frank who not only shows him the ins and outs of the job, but also invites him to take up residence in a tent community of sorts. Yet it isn’t long before this good thing starts turning a little sour when following a T.V. signal being disrupted and taken over by a new broadcast that chooses to talk about a vast and significant conspiracy theory, Nada starts to suspect it is coming from a local church. A suspicion which starts to eerily play out when not only does a preliminary inspection reveal recorded choir singing and odd activity afoot, but police soon raid the place and annihilate the camp. Things get even weirder when, whilst rummaging through the rubble, Nada uncovers a box full of sunglasses. Sunglasses that he soon discovers come equipped with a unique ability. It seems that putting these shades on reveals that not only are aliens all over and pretending to be people, but they have also managed to take over at the highest levels in such areas as business, politics, law enforcement, and upper class society circles. With this knowledge in mind, we soon Nada embark on a quest with a few allies backing him up to not only uncover the truth behind this silent yet deadly invasion even as doing so paints a target on their backs, but to also reveal to the world just what has occurred without them knowing.

Now just under its gonzo 80s action muscle movie surface, They Live manages to do a terrific job at nailing a lot of the key points that are still crucial driving forces in both the social and political spheres of the world today both out in public and away from the prying eyes of the public and press. Indeed it is such thought-provoking topics as upper classes vs. lower classes, the downward spiral of individual liberties, not enough opportunities to go around, the utter annihilation (or so it can feel like) of the middle class, and the continual snatching up of power by those who already have more than enough that all manage to help construct this film’s story Though even if at the same time they are taken as far as possible for the purpose of “creative liberty and dramatic effect” they still are at their core the same thing we are all familiar with even if we don’t have the benefit of some truly stylish sunglasses like our intrepid hero. Indeed this is a movie which offers a riveting contrast of a trio of distinct groups: the aliens and their elite hosts/backers, the sleepwalking through life unaware of anything or anyone but themselves “sheeple,” and the band of resistance warriors who are deadset on eliminating those who are set on further deceiving the majority of the planet of their own gains. Indeed it really isn’t that difficult to see how this film would go on to mold other iconic films like The Matrix. Yet unlike some of those other films, Carpenter’s is actually not only more approachable, but also more relatable in how it showcases to the audience such things as subliminal messaging, flock mentality, believing a lie brought to you by a morally bankrupt system, and more than anything, being blind or nearsighted to how things really are due to people in power practically begging you to “stay where you are in life” and “not to challenge authority” since a dazed and confused-population is more willing to be controlled. That is of course provided a muscular man with god-like blonde hair doesn’t find his inner hero and wake everyone up with some well-inserted bullets, one noteworthy fist fight, and a collection of quippy remarks that some of which have become etched permanently into the halls of pop culture.

To that end, it should be noted that even though Roddy Piper’s performance in this film most certainly is not on the level that is usually awarded with a trophy or even a nomination come time for the Oscars, but nevertheless he still manages to do what is necessary for the part phenomenally well as he gives us a truly downtrodden everyday guy who finds himself willingly placed in a truly nightmarish set of circumstances that we soon discover with him will require more muscle than smarts plus a lot of bravery, a lotta luck, a lotta firepower, and not a whole lot of bubblegum. Yes this is one role which has very little in the way of subtlety, but that is only because that is who this guy was in script form too. More than that though the primary reason this is ok is because this movie really is one made up of equal parts message and action beats with the two finally coming together by the end. Indeed Carpenter manages to really make a very vivid narrative to my happiness, but gives us only a typical protagonist, but that is ok. Not only does Piper look the part, but he also really seems to get into the shooting, gonzo 80s action, and rough and…well rowdy of the part very well. Even more astonishing is seeing Roddy also play this role well when it comes to the more dramatic aspects as well including the surprise, potent pathos, the terror, the anxiety, and even the strain both physically and psychologically that comes with the initial uncovering of the film’s main nightmare. Finally it should also be noted that Roddy also manages to have a terrific sense of chemistry with main co-star Keith David, who as to be expected, does dependably terrific work and even brings a real even keel and honesty to his role.

All in all it is safe to say that They Live is really truly a truly iconic example of the kind of film that is a genuine classic even if it hasn’t been as heralded as it should be. Indeed this is a film with little-to-no ambition on the surface, but when you dive into it you find quite a bit of social analysis cleverly threaded and embedded into the action beats. Indeed this is a truly engrossing and quite brilliant movie cleverly disguised as a dimwitted 80s action flick and it is a mixture that works spectacularly. Plus when you take into account terrific work by film helmer and writer John Carpenter and some lead roles, with Roddy Piper gloriously taking center stage, which are magnificent within what the film is asking them to pull off, what you are left with is a powerful movie that has aged quite well and to this day is still seen as one of the more brilliant hybrids from the 80s of both science fiction and gonzo action films. On a scale of 1-5 I give They Live a solid 4 out of 5.