I currently write three ongoing features here at F This Movie!: It Came from the '80s, Heavy Action and Movies I Love. They Live could fit into any or all of these categories. I chose to cover it in ICFT80s because it's so specific to the decade; unlike past entries like Flash Gordon or Dragonslayer, the movie could only have been made in the '80s not because of its genre elements but because it exists specifically to comment upon and critique Reagan America. It's not just OF the '80s. It's ABOUT the '80s.
There were only a handful of movies that I was DYING to see as a kid. Ghostbusters. Back to the Future. Predator. Six Pack, for some reason. And They Live. It had nothing to do with John Carpenter, whose movies I was aware of as a 10-year old, but to little end as I had no concept of the auteur theory. It had everything to do with the fact that I loved action movies and I loved "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and this movie offered two great tastes that taste great together. I did not get to see it during its brief theatrical run, and had to wait until it showed up on The Movie Channel (I do not know why we subscribed to The Movie Channel) to see it. It premiered at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and I remember hoping that dinner would not be ready so that I could at least see the beginning. I made it as far as the opening title before being called to the table. Such was the crushing disappointment of my childhood.
For those who don't already know, Piper (who was hand-picked by Carpenter for the movie) plays John Nada, a homeless drifter who arrives at a construction site in Los Angeles and finds work ("I got m'own tools."). He's befriended by another construction worker, Frank (Keith David), who brings Nada to a kind of camp for the homeless. There, the people gather around a single black and white TV that keeps breaking up as a crazy man rants nonsensical, prophetic messages. A nearby church is holding what appears to be a non-stop choir rehearsal. Something is clearly going on, and Nada finally decides to investigate. All he finds is an empty building -- the choir is a recording, and there are boxes of sunglasses everywhere. Weird.
That night, the shantytown (that's right) is raided by police, and many of the homeless are executed. Nada escapes and goes back for the sunglasses; when he puts them on, things look...different. Half the population is revealed to be an alien race, surrounded by propaganda commands like "OBEY" and "REPRODUCE" on what appears to us as advertising. Aliens, it seems, are secretly taking over the Earth by taking all the money and resources and oppressing those beneath them. So Nada picks up a gun, recruits Frank (after the world's longest fight scene) and a cable TV station employee (Meg Foster), and starts making moves to expose the alien conspiracy and shut it down fast.
One of the movie's masterstrokes is that it avoids making Nada a jaded cynic from the start. He's not Snake Plissken. Despite the fact that he's homeless, despite the fact that he's wandering from place to place practically begging for work, Nada believes that things will work out. If he keeps working hard, the country will meet him halfway and he will be rewarded. He's Joe the Plumber, only not a sellout or an idiot. It makes the betrayal by the country in which he placed such faith that much more powerful (though there are hints at his inner cynic when he says something along the lines of "It figures it would be something like this..."). The flip side is the Keith David character, who simply DOESN'T WANT TO KNOW. He doesn't want trouble. He doesn't want to get involved. He is, as so many are, willfully ignorant. In Nada and Frank, Carpenter creates two characters whose fundamental belief systems are what enables such a class disparity (alien takeover) -- denial and ignorance. The way he shakes them awake is part of what has made the movie so famous -- the crazy long back alley fight scene (parodied in an episode of South Park, which I suspect more people have seen than have seen They Live). Yes, it is ridiculous. Yes, it is indulgent. Why exactly does Carpenter go on for as long as he does? I really can't say. I guess if you're going to cast a guy who does elbow drops and suplexes for a living, you might as well have him do elbow drops and suplexes in your movie. Play the strengths of your actors. If you put Zoë Bell in your movie, you better strap her to the hood of a car. Also, please put Zoë Bell in your movie.
They Live is often credited with being a masterpiece. I don't think it is. CALM DOWN IT IS STILL GREAT. But the movie has a bunch of pacing problems -- it's slow to start, though it has an interesting buildup. The middle section, after Nada puts on the sunglasses, is great. The last act in the underground tunnels is kind of a mess. Nada's ties to Holly are poorly defined. The climax is rushed. The movie has its problems.
None of them matter.
They Live is remembered as a masterpiece because, to quote Film Crit Hulk, it works in all the ways it needs to work. The dialogue is spare but clever. The one-liners, for which the movie is maybe best known ("Something something bubble gum something something kick ass...") are terrific. Carpenter's score, which makes the movie feel like a western, rules. It has a GREAT idea at its center. Roddy Piper's performance is iconic. It's the kind of movie that has so many things to like and so many high points that they tend to wipe out any of the problems -- you're left with the rush, not with the nitpicks.