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Overall Rating

Awesome: 25.93%
Worth A Look40.74%
Average: 16.05%
Pretty Bad: 2.47%
Total Crap: 14.81%

3 reviews, 63 user ratings

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They Live
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by Mel Valentin

"Better than your average sci-fi/horror/political satire..."
4 stars

John Carpenter’s 1988 film, "They Live," is one part political/social satire, one part black comedy, and one part science fiction/horror. After "Big Trouble in Little China," Carpenter's action-comedy-fantasy mash-up failed commercially (it's since become a cult favorite), Carpenter returned to low-budget filmmaking, directing "Prince of Darkness" in 1987 and "They Live" a year later. Unusual for a filmmaker associated with the horror genre, Carpenter developed “They Live” as an explicit critique of Reagan-era America: an America distinguished by rampant consumerism, corporate capitalism, anti-environmental, and anti-egalitarian economic policies that consistently favored the wealthy over the middle class and the poor.

They Live never identifies the hero-protagonist by name, except in the end credits as “Nada” (Spanish for “nothing”). Played by ex-wrestler-turned-actor Roddy Piper, Nada is an unemployed drifter who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. The local unemployment office offers him no hope. Wandering into a job site, he manages, however, to obtain work. Frank (Keith David, The Thing, Requiem for a Dream), a construction worker, brings Nada to Justiceville, a shantytown located on an abandoned lot near a church. A nearby church that helps to feed and clothe the homeless attracts Nada’s attention. Like everything else in They Live, the church isn’t what it seems. Nada discovers a perception altering or rather, a reality revealing, pair of sunglasses.

Nada’s newly awakened species consciousness converts him to the cause of liberation from alien oppression. With the sunglasses, Nada can see the aliens in their true form. The sunglasses allow him to see the subliminal messages embedded in billboards, books, and magazines. It doesn’t take long before the aliens realize that Nada’s eccentric, agitated behavior has a cause (i.e., he can see them for what they really are), making him a target. Desperate to escape, Nada encounters the obligatory romantic interest, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), a television station employee. Nada’s awakening then leads to a six-minute-long fight with a skeptical Frank, and eventually, an attempt to publicly unmask the aliens.

Rather than confront Reaganism head on, Carpenter cleverly, if unsubtly, opted to make ghoulish, bug-eyed aliens our overlords, hiding in plain sight. Some humans have sold out our species for wealth and power. Thanks to advanced, perception-distorting technology, they look human. The same technology bombards the airwaves with subliminal advertising, with simple, coded messages (e.g., “Obey,” “Listen to Authority,” Consume,” “Marry and Reproduce,” “This [money] is your God”). The transmissions make everyone but the aliens willing and submissive subjects to the social order. Some humans, discovering the truth, give in their baser impulses, and openly collaborate with their oppressors.

In addition to Carpenter’s social and political commentary, They Live is best known for the seemingly interminable fight between Nada and Frank which took three weeks to rehearse. Piper and David use traditional and non-traditional wrestling moves to get the upper hand on their opponent: chokeholds, suplexes, head butts, eye gouging, and back breakers (on unforgiving asphalt no less). And that's just in the first two minutes of the fight. It lasts close to six minutes of screen time.

Another major plus: the quotable dialogue, most notably Piper's ad lib when he enters a bank filled with aliens,” I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." Still others will look at the underwritten romantic subplot, compare it to the scenes between Nada and Frank and conclude that their relationship is far more engaging and open to interpretation (others, of course, can take that point further, beginning with the post-fight scene that has Nada and Frank sharing a room in a flophouse, with Nada bathing his bruised upper body in an open sink while Frank looks on).

Unfortunately, Carpenter’s screenplay and direction leave a great deal to be desired. “They Live,” starts slowly (Nada doesn’t find and put on the sunglasses until almost the halfway point in the film), only picking up pace in the second half. That’s excusable, but the contrived, convenient plot turns, and haphazardly staged action scenes (e.g., aliens have an unfortunate habit of running headlong into gunfire) aren’t. To be fair, a limited budget probably forced Carpenter to cut back on what he intended to do with “They Live.” Political and social subtext aside, the end result is a seriously flawed, sporadically engaging effort.

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originally posted: 09/12/05 07:21:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/21/17 morris campbell no this here sucks 1 stars
2/17/15 Mongoria Flaxseed Suck an anal wart, Sommersby. This here's a classic. 5 stars
1/29/15 david froman pipers best movie by far 3 stars
3/05/13 Son of Celluloid I couldn;t disagree more. One of my all time favorites. 5 stars
2/18/13 the truth VanDammit!!! I'VE HAD IT WITH YOUR LIES!!!!!!! Care to join me in the ALLEY for BUBBLEGUM!? 4 stars
7/07/11 Dr.Lao Rowdy Roddy Piper's best film 3 stars
4/06/10 art JOHN CARPENTER is THE master of FABLE"S! V 3 stars
12/05/08 jarrod Cult classic. Go buy it. 5 stars
11/10/08 Otis Would have made a better "Twilight Zone" episode, but some entertaining scenery chewin' 4 stars
12/07/07 Adrian Better than chewing bubblegum. 5 stars
7/08/07 Tom Servo Yet another reason why I hate Yuppies! Great plot, and all around B movie goodness- B+ 5 stars
5/26/07 Jim W Great fight scene in the alley!! I loved it though it is a B+ movie. 5 stars
10/25/06 Kelly Ha. Tacky to the extreme, but nonetheless quite entertaining and a good solid plot, too~! 4 stars
9/05/06 --- Piper perfect for this role-great campy sci-fi "so bad its good" flick 5 stars
5/06/06 dionwr Great ideas, lousy movie 3 stars
5/05/06 Uri Lessing Roddy Rowdy Subversive Material 5 stars
5/02/06 PaulBryant Mildly interesting, worth little contemplation 3 stars
5/02/06 Ryan_A Better than Hell Comes to Frogtown and Body Slam combined! 5 stars
5/02/06 EricDSnider no thank you 3 stars
5/02/06 David Cornelius Goss needs to see this NOW 5 stars
5/02/06 William Goss Still haven't seen this yet. 4 stars
5/02/06 HBS-SH strider in a wheelchair 4 stars
3/29/06 Fabrizio Negri very funny movie, a good parody of 80's america. 4 stars
9/22/05 Fritz Even in his lesser movies, Carpenter goes beyond typical genre crap. Case in point. . . 4 stars
9/16/05 drippy One of Carpenter's worst...and that's saying something! 1 stars
8/25/05 Copper Just an all-around terrible movie...what was the deal with that 90-minute alley fight?????? 1 stars
8/18/05 ES Rowdy Roddy and Keith David how the hell did these guys not wind up super-stars? 4 stars
6/22/05 DM Some poorly staged gunfights but a still a great premise with funny dialogue. 4 stars
1/17/05 Jeff Anderson Very entertaining and lots of fun. Roddy Piper is a hoot in the lead. What more do you want 5 stars
1/13/05 Tom Benton Less-intelligent Carpenter film could be better, but it's entertaining. 3 stars
11/18/04 Jews for Hitler Piper kicks some alien ass.... 4 stars
10/23/04 LilyM Loved the fight and some of the funny lines. The rest? Not so much. 3 stars
8/21/04 Josh Standlee I'd watch it everyday, once I get the DVD! 5 stars
6/20/04 Spiderfan50 "PUT ON THE FREAKIN' GLASSES" HAHA, more of a comedy than a sci-fi but good none the less 4 stars
4/11/04 American Slasher Goddess Okay,but this is the point where Carpenter starts to lose it. 3 stars
2/08/04 toast Great sci-fi metaphor for late 20th century sociopolitical U.S. 5 stars
1/30/04 Jack Sommersby Promising premise quickly gives way to tedium. 1 stars
1/09/04 John memorable sci fi action movie 4 stars
12/23/03 dave This is the best thing this side of piper's pit! 5 stars
12/08/03 Sammy Better than I expected, but it could have been longer in the time department 5 stars
12/07/03 Boris Smith I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And im all outta bubblegum. Saves the film 3 stars
10/31/03 Robert I thought it was pretty good 5 stars
10/30/03 Alan Camp Classic 4 stars
10/19/03 R.W. Welch Nice premise but so-so follow through. Just passable acting. 3 stars
10/18/03 uglie fun, not boring, saw it on AMC 4 stars
9/28/03 JJ Well, it starts out fairly good but very cheesy towards the end. 3 stars
9/23/03 KingNeutron Definitely one of the classics. Always worth the rental. 4 stars
3/22/03 roulettedares The greatest movie ever made, bar none. Not even Big Trouble in Little China can defeat it. 5 stars
3/04/03 Jack Sommersby Good beginning; abysmal follow-through. Still, it's never boring. 2 stars
10/18/02 Flynn The aliens Piper killed were minding their own business. 4 stars
8/24/02 ^ZuLu^ An 80s classic. If you're in for SciFi go have a look! 5 stars
8/16/02 Klute Great silly fun 4 stars
6/19/02 Charles Tatum Dull, the beginning of Carpenter's downfall 2 stars
6/02/02 Jim ... And I'm all out of bubblegum! 5 stars
5/31/02 Janx Pretty good for a B movie Sci-fi flick. "Rowdy" Roddy is decent in the lead role. 4 stars
5/22/02 Kyle Wow. Lots of fun, but the ending lets you down a bit. 5 stars
10/25/01 shep_ramsay i'm here to chew bubble gum and kick ass and i'm all out off bubble gum 5 stars
8/19/01 Monster W. Kung Good idea, so-so film. Has its moment and overall it's worth a look, but falls flat. 3 stars
8/06/01 E-Funk Carpenter's puttin' perfume on a pig! 4 stars
3/25/01 Blubberbot A good movie with the worst fight scene ever. 4 stars
6/21/00 Ulatekk A cult classic! A paranoid vision of alien invasion. 4 stars
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  02-Sep-1988 (R)
  DVD: 25-Mar-1998



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