They Live (1988)
WRITER: John Carpenter (As Frank Armitage)
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
STARRING: Roddy Piper as Nada
Keith David as Frank
Meg Foster as Holly
George "Buck" Flower as Drifter
Peter Jason as Gilbert
Raymond St. Jaques as The Street Preacher
QUICK CUT: A drifter wanders into town, and wanders into a conspiracy to keep the populace of Earth complacent in the face of an alien invasion. His only hope to save us is a pair of magic sunglasses and a bag full of one-liners.
Nada - A man with no name who drifts into town, and uses his wits and witty reparte to discover and fight against an alien invasion. He is very much a modern representation of the classic western hero.
Frank - Nada's friend who gets dragged kicking and screaming (And punching!) into the conspiracy. Frank repesents humanity, being more than willing to just let things sail on by, and not rock the boat, as long as he is left alone to do as he will.
Holly - The ostensible love interest in the movie, and a woman Nada takes hostage to escape the aliens on his tail, as well as an important player in taking down the aliens.
THE GUTS: They Live rolls into town with a drifter played by Roddy Piper doing much the same as the movie, while the credits play out with some pretty sweet music that puts me instantly in mind of old westerns, also known for their drifters. And this is a comparrison that is increasingly more apt as the movie continues.
Roddy, or 'John' or 'Nada' depending on who you ask, and making him all the more unknown with his vague, meaningless names, hits up the local unemployment line to try and find work. He has about as much luck as you'd expect for a wrestler trying to find a regular job in the city.
Dejected, he heads back onto the streets and pauses to watch a street preacher giving his crazy sermon. As the police pull up, he beats feet before things get ugly.
Nada finds a comfy bridge to sleep under, watching the tv through someone's apartment window, where someone is saying how when she watches tv, she can escape to whatever life she chooses, anyone can, they just have to be famous. An interesting commentary to juxtapose that with the street preacher, and place television as the preachers within all our homes.
Finally, John finds a job on a construction site, and the movie makes good use of Piper's physique, putting it on display for everyone to see. He's in great shape for a homeless guy!
Goliath meets up with him on the site, and tells Piper about a place he can stay at, but the drifter is hesitant to take any help without checking things out first. It's little more than a shanty town, but it's more welcoming than the rest of the city, and it's a place to sleep until he gets paid.
We get to spend some time with our two leads philosophising over their lots in life. Frank has been trampled down and come to accept his fate, knowing that he's not going to get much better than where he is, and Nada is still hopeful, still believes in America. And cue the crushing disappointment!
Later that night, some other hobos are watching a tv, when it gets interupted by a pirate signal trying to convince people that the world as we know it is wrong, and we need to wake up before things get worse.
Then things get weird when Piper sees the street preacher mouthing the exact same words as the tv hacker. When one of the bums finally changes the channel, he wanders off, under the watching eyes of John.
When the next day comes, Piper asks about the church across the street being open so late, and the guy who seems to be in charge of the community explains that the church lets them use the kitchen. Piper is still dubious, but doesn't push the issue.
More broadcasts get interrupted by the pirates, and people begin to complain of headaches. I smell a plot point.
As the pirate signals again get squashed, Piper watches Gilbert sneak off to the church, and follows him. In the back room he finds some equipment making it seem like the church is full of a choir, bunches of sunglasses, and a sign painted on the wall, THEY LIVE WE SLEEP. Perchance to dream.
Piper finds a covered up hole in the wall as the transients debate sending out shipments, but he only finds boxes and more boxes. He covers the hole back up and thinks he has managed to not be caught, until he turns around and is grabbed by the street preacher.
After he gets his face groped by the blind preacher, he rushes out of the church as a police helicopter flies overhead. You know, it's kinda sad that he found this operation in a matter of hours.
Nada borrows a pair of binoculars from a fellow bum, and watches as Gilbert loads up a car with some of the suspicious cardboard boxes. Goliath comes over to see what's what, and tries to warn off Piper, since if he makes waves, it could be trouble for everyone.
It is suddenly night, and Nada hasn't moved an inch. And no one finds it suspicious that he's been staring at a church all day long through binoculars. Suddenly, the police chopper returns with a SWAT van, and everyone and their preacher try and get the hell out as fast as possible.
What I can only describe as the textbook definition of excessive force, more and more cops show up in riot gear, flares are lit, smoky distractions billow out, and they call in a bulldozer to smash down the shanty town. Bulldozers don't sneak!
Piper slips away in all the commotion, but he can't avoid the cops entirely. Fortunately, they're far too busy Rodney Kinging the preacher to pay Nada any mind. He helps get one of his fellow hobos to safety, and watches the destruction of their camp.
The next day, the survivors return to what's left, and it ain't much. Their shanty town is little more than a field, with a few scattered remains of debris and chairs. Piper heads to the church since that place clearly had something to do with what's going on, but all he finds is a ransacked building, and the sign painted over. He kicks in the hideyhole, and steals one of the remaining cardboard boxes before sneaking away.
Once he's put some distance between the church and himself, John opens the box and finds it full of nothing but sunglasses. Whoda thunk there was such a huge market for counterfeit Ray-Bans? Anyways, he taks a pair, and hides the rest under some trash like a good bum.
As he's walking away, he slips on the glasses, and he begins to see things differently, and not just in black and white. All around him, he sees once familiar billboards for your everyday advertisements now declaring OBEY and CONSUME, and telling people to be fruitful and multiply.
This whole effect works because of its simplicity. I could see some modern movie makers trying to make the images fade from one image to the other, or spruce up the subliminals with sparkles and swirls and everything, to let us know They Are Special, but They Live goes for simplicity. Glasses off, everything is normal, glasses on, and we see the world as it really is, very stark, very simple, and the commands are simple fonts on blank backgrounds. Basic is best. And also, making the 'real world' be seen in shades of black and white, genius.
He walks down the street with the glasses on, seeing just how prevalent these messages are. It's not just billboards and advertisements. They're on store signs, announcements in windows, newspapers, magazines, books...anywhere they can fit words, the messages have been placed.
I especially love the newspapers and magazines all being distilled down from mind numbing soup of words on pages to simple commands. Each page reduced to just a command or two, buried underneath all the sludge we pick through every day. I love the messages inherent here in our media, all those words just making us blind to the real messages and biases hidden beneath them, hypnotising us with the noise, and missing the truth.
And then things get messed up.
Someone passes Piper by, asking if something's wrong, and when he looks at the man through the sunglasses, the man's face is hideous. Or missing, depending on how you want to look at it, I guess. The man-thing buys a paper, and goes about his business, leaving the hobo to swap from glasses to normal viewing several times to make sure he has not just snapped.
John's new view of the city gets stranger and stranger, as he even sees money has messages printed on it, there's more faceless creatures just blending in perfectly, shopping and getting their hair done. Even bags from stores have been turned into subliminal messages. The only thing I question is this rotating dish they show that seems to be sending out audible messages of 'sleep' over and over again. How does his new shades help him HEAR messages?
The level of production design is just amazing. I know some of the glasses-view effects are just that, effects, mostly the billboards, but many of them are not. The newspaper stand, and all the items in stores being changed around. This takes hard work and time, and it really pays off with how far they went, and really helps sell this hidden world.
Even the news has been infiltrated...but does that surprise anyone? All of this amuses our hero, and he's not that surprised either. It figures, doesn't it? He bumps into a woman-thing, and starts telling her how ugly she is, and talking about the glasses. Oh, that's real smart. So smart, the woman immediately calls for assistance and reports him.
Every melty-faced thing in the market starts reporting him in, giving detailed descriptions of how he looks, and Piper quickly makes an exit, but the word spreads. Every chrome-eyed creature is watching him now, turning to follow his every movement.
It's not long before the police show up, and this is probably something our hero is more familiar with than the rest of us. They naturally want to know where he got the glasses from, and are of course also faceless creatures.
They try to take him quietly, wanting to know how he got mixed up in this mess, and just as it seems to be he's going to give in, we see the upside of hiring Roddy Piper. He can kick ass and make it look fairly decent without much stunt work on his part.
But then we have a plot complication as the cops are down, but not out in Beverly Hills. Piper uses the gun he took off one of them when they were knocked on their asses, and kills them both, seeing that if it bleeds, you can kill it. But unfortunately, he also just killed two cops. He quickly grabs the shotgun from their squad car, and runs off as more cops arrive.
Doubly unfortunately for him, our hero stumbles into a bank, where there's still more creatures and signage ruining his day. And for a moment, he thinks he's Duke Nukem or something. Pff, what a rip-off.
The faceless security guard opens fire, but Piper is the better shot and takes him, and more creatures out in quick succession. Give it up for being a pretty good marksman, as he doesn't hit a single normal human in the ensuing panic. One of the creatures reports in, but before he can become another grey stain on the wall, he disappears in the blink of an eye, leaving Piper all alone as the cops arrive.
He runs out of the bank and finds a tiny, flying drone watching him, and shoots it down. A normal cop also shows up to try and stop the bank robber, but since he's human, Piper lets him run away with nothing worse than a soiled uniform.
Our hero finds his way to a parking garage and kidnaps a normal woman, coercing her to give him a ride to safety, or her place, whichever is closest on the freeway.
She gets him inside, and he collapses in the relative safety of her living room. He compares wearing the glasses to using a drug, and it's rough to come down.
Holly tries to placate and stroke her captor's ego, but that's not what this is about to him, he just wanted to get away. He tries explaining to her what he's seen, and she continues to be contrite and conciliatory to every thing he says, no matter how crazy. Just fire up the tv and have her put the shades on, dude. He tries to get her to do just that, but she says she'll just tell him what he wants to hear.
She tells our hero that she works in tv as a program director, and I wonder idly if she knows Leigh. But I digress. Piper scrambles for the tv to look at it again, and Holly takes the chance to break a bottle of wine over his head and throw him out a window. I am amused at classic wrestling tricks being used on Piper.
He stumbles off to hide after tumbling downhill, as Holly calls the cops. He stumbles as best he can, glasses left behind, into a dark alley to rest, another thing I am sure he's familiar with by now.
The next day, he makes the long walk back to the construction site, where he finds Frank, and his friend flips out. Turns out that our hero is a wanted man for his murder spree, unsurprisingly, and Frank wants nothing to do with the crazy cracker whose face is plastered on every news broadcast.
He makes his way back to the alley where he stashed the box of glasses, and finds the trash has been collected. Fortunately the truck just so happens to still be there, and he actually manages to get inside and find a pair before they're hauled away for good.
Once the truck is gone, Frank shows up to give Piper some cash for his work, and help out a friend. Piper makes sure Frank's face hasn't melted off, and not occasionally stone, and tries to get his friend to try the glasses on himself, but just gets punched in the nose for his trouble.
The pair get into a fight over whether or not Frank will put the glasses on, and boy, does that sound like one lame reason to fight. Frank actually holds his own, and it's a nice bit to have the famous wrestler take a dive in his starring role. Too often, it's too easy to have them be the best fighters in their acting roles. Which isn't to say Piper doesn't kick around Keith David for his fare share, but he does take a beating.
You know, there's something I just like about this fight. The simplicity of it. It's just two guys going at it, nothing special. But there's no fancy work, no dancing around, no super creative moves or feints. Just a back-alley brawl. It's almost refreshing these days with all the highly choreographed wire work we're used to.
This fight goes on for ages, it seems like. Just as one of them walks away thinking it's over, the other gets back up and resumes the punching. It started to reach the point of just being needless padding, and yet still is a good fight.
Finally, FINALLY, Frank gets taken down and has the glasses shoved on his face, and shown the real world. The creatures also see the pair though, and report them to the Big Giant Head. Frank's life is now officially ruined.
The dynamic duo head off to a beat up motel where Frank gets a room, and this movie is going someplace weird, isn't it? The pair look like something that was used in Rocky's training montage by this point, and I love that it's all their own faults. All over sunglasses.
Frank stares out the window at the really real world, and Nada warns him to not leave the glasses on for too long. I figure pushing past the cover-up and seeing things the way they are, messes with a person's head. Or, they're 3D glasses, could go either way. Frank asks the important question though, how long have the creatures been there?
Nada tries to be a smartass about the whole thing, mainly because he doesn't have any more answers than Frank does. It's great that Frank doesn't take his crap though, and demands answers. The rage and impotence of these two alpha males who have just realised how truly low on the totem pole they are...great, great stuff.
After a brief pause for character development before the final act, Gilbert wanders back into the plot, running into Frank and seeing he's got his own pair of shades. He tells the pair about a meeting that night with a whole group of people to discuss what to do next.
Frank and Nada head out wearing their sunglasses at night so they can keep track of visions in their eyes. They arrive at an old building and find about three dozen or so resistence fighters organising. They're reassured that they're all human there, and hey take off their glasses and rub at their eyes. Frank and Nada get handed upgrades to their eyewear in the form of contacts. Less obvious, and better made, so there's less interference and headaches. Personally, I figure they just didn't want to have our heroes wearing sunglasses for the rest of the movie.
We hear more of the pirate broadcast, explaining the signals come through the tv, even when they're off, to reprogram our brains and accept their messages without seeing them. Also, the changes in our planet, the industrialisation, global warming, it's all the creatures' fault, trying to make our world more habitable to them.
Frank again asks why the creatures are here, and at least gets an answer this time, and quite frankly, it's a rather depressing one. They're just hear to use up our planet and move on, we're their third world. We're their tourist spot. Great.
They start to arm up, and we get informed that the expensive watches all the creatures wear are also communicators, and somehow enable them to pull their bamfing trick. That would explain WHY they're so expensive. That kinda technology can't be cheap.
By this time, the natives have begun to get restless. Their numbers are down, the aliens are getting better at finding them. But everyone agrees it is time to strike back, if they can just find where the signal is coming from that makes us see the world the way the creatures want us to see it.
And hey, Holly walks back in on the plot too, so she can clear her own tv station of any wrong-doing. Hi, Holly! And Nada is just as surprised as I am to see her.
The pair share a tender moment, trying to explain about what happened after he was defenestrated, and then SURPRISE RAID! The story has slowed down, the music changes to soft and touching, and the explosions are totally out of left field.
Pretty much everyone gets mowed down that doesn't have top billing in the movie, including Gilbert, but our trio of heroes make it out more or less unscathed. Holly is off on her own, and John wants to find her, against Frank's protests.
As the cops close in, Frank fiddles with the Space-and-Timex, and it starts acting even stranger than a teleportation communicator time telling device already is. Tech support calls down and opens up a temporary portal for the owner of the watch to dive through, but since that melty-faced bastard is long gone, Frank and Nada take the chance. Better than dealing with the police, I guess.
They end up in a long, seemingly endless corridor, and have no clue where they are, or how to get out. Nada figures they're in some underground base as they wander. They come across a pair of security guards listening in on the radio, and hear that the 'terrorists' have been wiped out.
Finally, Frank and John find a giant ballroom where the aliens and humans that have sold out are having a congratulatory dinner and discussion about future expansionist plans. Great, we're just victims of beaurocracy. Figures. And it's hilarious how no one notices the guys in denim and work shirts, when everyone else is dressed for a presidential gala.
Man, it is almost crazy how much this movie resonates today. The whole point of this alliance is so the rich get richer, keep the populace numb, and use up our resources before anyone notices, while using the media to keep us clueless and in a trance.
As our heroes listen in on all this, one of their former transient friends shows up, all cleaned and suited up, having sold out to the creatures and fulfilling his one dream of having the kids not set him on fire. And if you get that reference, you are in the right place.
He suspects his friends have also signed up, and gives them the 10,000 dollar tour. Including a hangar bay that opens up into space, looking down upon a planet, and the aliens have a handy teleporter home to boot.
The biggest security breach this side of Wikileaks continues as their friend shows Frank and Nada a room with consoles and screens a plenty, and tells them that it's where the master signal comes from. And this is why we do background checks, Buck.
Frank and Nada get taken to a tv studio and try to get inside the stage. The guards posted there are actually doing their jobs and ask for authorisation cards. What they get are a pair of bullets to the brain. And still with all these bullets flying around as they make their way to the roof to stop the signal, they only hit aliens.
They come across a newsroom of people at work, and when the people see the guns, they begin to panic. Nada stays calm and asks where the bathrooms...er, the roof is, and gets handy directions. People are so helpful when you have guns!
As they run into the stairwell to head to the roof, I hope the building isn't like 40 stories tall. Alien guards rush into the newsroom, and actually cause more of a panic and more screams than our heroes did.
The pair gun down every guard that is foolish enough to jump out into the hallways as they climb through the building, until Holly suddenly appears, and gets dragged along in Nada's chaotic wake. Oh, that's not suspicious at all.
As Nada exits onto the roof, and we see they are in a real building on Earth after all, Holly pulls out a gun and shoots Frank in the head. John finds the satellite dish broadcasting the brainwashing signal and is ready to take it out when he's confronted by Holly.
If that wasn't enough, a pair of helicopters show up and urge John to drop his gun, so he does. He knows when he's outmatched. Things seem bleak, but he had a small derringer like pistol stashed up his sleeve, and uses the element of surprise to kill the supposed love interest. I like playing against expectations with her inevitable betrayal.
Before the choppers can act, Nada turns his gun on the dish and fires at their device. He too gets shot, but the damage has been done. The dish explodes, and John dies, flipping off the aliens one last time, as their signal cloaking the truth from us humans is stopped, and the illusions fall away for everyone, not just those wearing glasses.
There's a series of great shots as the broadcasts now show the truth, stop hiding the aliens, with news casters, reviewers, tv shows...and I particularly love the Gene Siskel like alien ranting how John Carpenter needs to be reined in. Cute.
And so the movie ends with the alien signal as dead as everyone else in this movie, and we are left wondering if the world will truly be saved, or just subjugated once more. Kind of a downer ending, eh? But really, how else could it end? And it seems like we have still not woken up.
Video: Being a movie with a budget, a theatrical release, and made with a real studio behind it, this looks pretty decent.
Audio: A simple yet effective surround mix. The movie doesn't need much, and it works with what it's got.
Sound Bite: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I am all out of bubblegum." How can I not go with the classic?
First Death: About 40 minutes in, a double dose of alien police death.
Best Death: I want to say Frank, since it is so out of nowhere, and so sudden, but it has to be Nada's sacrifice to save us all. He goes out, guns blazing, and gets one last shot of the finger at the bad guys. You have to respect that.
Blood Type - C: Some ok blood spots here and there, but most of it is left up to your imagination. The movie gets a few points for creepy creature makeup.
Sex Appeal: Shirtless Roddy Piper all over the place, for the ladies.
Movie Rating: I long debated reviewing this movie, since, well, it's a classic. It's genuinely a good movie, on all fronts. It's well made, well written, well acted for the most part. How could I do this movie? But it IS a classic of the genre, it IS still kinda cheesy, although in good ways, and that cheese does make it fit in Trisk's wheelhouse, I think. It may not be a BAD movie, per se, but once Nada discovers the aliens, it does become something else, and the cheese takes over. Using almost cliches of b-movies, in look, style, and execution also help it feel like They Live belongs here, as the king of the mountain. Five out of five pairs of sunglasses. The movie is not without its flaws, but it's perfect by our standards.
Entertainment Value: Just by being a good movie, this is worth watching, and entertaining. But Piper is also a pleasure to watch, especially once he starts camping it up, and has his sidekick Frank right there with him. The one-liners, the destruction, the message, and taking those 50s tropes and using them seriously, all make this such a good movie to watch. Five out of five magic communicator watches.
With two good movies under my belt...the next one is going to hurt, isn't it?