THEY LIVE (1988)

  • Release Date: 04/11/1988
  • Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
  • Director: John Carpenter

“I have come here to chew Bubblegum and kick ass and I am all out of bubblegum” roars Nada (Roddy Piper) before unleashing a flurry of bullets on a host of people who he thinks are aliens. Nada lays hands on a pair of sunglasses which when worn gives humans the ability to see through the disguise of the aliens around them who have practically taken over the earth and are using the other still-human humans as their slaves and means to get their jobs done. They have kept these humans under a smokescreen of deceit and lie and made them feel that they are actually in control over their respective lives.

They control the humans using signal emanating from a TV tower which is not known to anyone except the resistance force that is building up against them. The resistance comprises of people who have woken up to the scam of the aliens but are being swiftly obliterated by them. It is at this juncture that, Nada enters the picture and proves to be an interesting player in the whole game.

If one looks at the surface, They Live can be summarized as a film in a paragraph. It has very little meat in terms of story, plot, and twists. However, it is the execution that makes this film special and enjoyable. It builds up slowly and almost at a lethargic pace. If I didn’t know about its plot in advance, I would not expect it turn out the way that it does. Once the basic plot point is set, it is mostly about how the protagonist deals with the extraordinary situation and gets others to help him in his pursuits. I, for a very long time, thought that the whole alien invasion episode may just be happening in Nada’s mind owing to his troubled life and lack of hope but that didn’t turn out to be the thing. I must admit that if that was the case, the film might a taken an even more interesting turn.

Roddy Piper does a great job as the protagonist. He is the kind of guy who seems like an extension of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russel, Escape from New York) and has the kind of aura that was needed to make the character work. One has to agree that the majority of the film is anchored on his act and if he didn’t have the kind of charm that would let you accept the overall cheesiness of the character and the film as a whole, They Live would fall flat on its face. Thankfully, he turns in a performance that made me take him seriously. He works up a nice chemistry with Keith David who plays his disillusioned friend Frank. Nada and Frank have a prolonged hand to hand fight before Nada is finally able to put his glasses on Frank’s eyes and he too sees the point that Nada is driving at. That was a memorable scene. Meg Foster as Holly is an interesting character even though she executes the whole part in one stoic run. There is little modulation in her act which in many ways was a stickler for me as her character does have an arc to play with.

The design of the aliens also leaves a lot to be desired. With John Carpenter directing, I was really hoping that the character design would be a lot better. The black and white take on the visuals every time Nada puts on the glasses did make the settings a tad bit better but still I wasn’t entirely convinced with the visuals. The fact that this is a serious film that is outrageous in its treatment but still depends a lot on the viewer’s belief in its plot and treatment demanded better character designs and visuals for at least the science fiction portions.

I tried to view this film not as science fiction but as social commentary using science fiction elements as a forwarding trope but even in that I just couldn’t place certain aspects of it. All the aliens are the super rich. It can be sighted that the film tries to show us that the rich control our lives using money, brands, endorsements, and generating needs for stuff that we don’t necessarily need but even in that, the path that the story takes becomes too much to fathom as a social commentary.

They Live might be an entertaining film but it falls short of being close to what its potential was. John Carpenter knows how to conjure up an eerie and temperamental film and that is one of the film’s biggest fortes. But it wraps up way too quickly and with way too little twists and turns to make any lasting impression. The film also doesn’t have much drama to play with the viewer’s senses and we have over the years seen far better films (Matrix, 1999) based on similar concepts. Maybe 20 years ago this film would have made some impact but for me who has seen this film in 2018, it was bound to feel flat and uninspiring.

Rating: 2.5/5 (2.5 out of 5 Stars)  

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