Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 33 min.
Release Date: November 4th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Carpenter Actors: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, Sy Richardson, Cibby Danyla
nameless drifter (Roddy Piper) coming from Denver, Colorado, arrives in Los Angeles, hopeful for a new job and opportunities. But work is scarce all over, and after trying a placement facility, negotiates his way onto a construction site. Fellow laborer Frank (Keith David) offers to take the itinerant to a nearby shantytown that provides food and shelter for the hungry and homeless – the man just needs a place to hang out until Thursday’s paycheck. “I believe in America. I follow the rules,” he insists to Frank, who laments about the rich getting richer while the middle class evaporates.
Piper’s character is the archetypal poverty-stricken worker of the ‘80s, refusing to give up on the American dream. He forges ahead with a positive attitude, patiently waiting for his big break. Unfortunately, it comes in the form of accelerated heroism – an undefined devotion to humanity forces him to take action against a shocking discovery (his motivation is further complicated by a story about his abusive father, who leads him to strike out on his own at a young age). He spies upon the African Methodist Episcopal Church across from the slum, and becomes preoccupied with the activities of Gilbert (Peter Jason), who is using the building as a front for his underground rebellion. It’s a war that few are aware of – the annihilation of conscience, a global conspiracy helmed by the extremely wealthy who have joined with alien invaders to cast a blanket of brainwashing propaganda over the lower class masses.
The “real” world has been veiled by a signal broadcast from the Cable 54 station; advertisements on buildings and in magazines state commands such as “obey,” “submit to authority,” “consume,” and “conform,” while skinless humanoid aliens walk the streets, similarly disguised as normal people by the camouflaging waves. They’ve taken over the earth and are using up its resources as if it were a third world country. The drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that can decode the signal to reveal the deception, which leads him to the identification of individual intruders who, through their control of the police force, make him a man on the run. The idea is a rather blunt examination of consumerism, commercialization, subliminal messages, the media and its immoral intentions to sell rather than inform, and political interference and control. Average people are like zombies, unaware, generally content, and hopelessly confined in the social classes the wealthy dole out, futilely striving to obtain the ideals conveyed in the media.
Hilariously outrageous action scenes and asinine dialogue ultimately overshadow the layers of political and social commentary. Piper and David engage in one of the longest fistfight scenes in the history of film; equally lauded, criticized, and imitated, it’s unforgettable not because of technical achievements or choreography, but rather because of its pacing and details. Sound effects are exaggerated and don’t quite line up while mitts clearly don’t contact their targets, but the reactions of the characters, highlighted by moments of believable fatigue and unconvincing stamina, are priceless. Piper is thrown out of a window by the kidnapped Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) after storming a bank and later the television station, armed to the teeth with bullets and grenades; director John Carpenter proves that regardless of deeper significance in symbolism, machineguns are still the best method for staving off an alien infestation.
Piper’s character is also equipped with flashy insults and macho one-liners (“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.”) that he slings around even during moments that don’t require taunts. David similarly gets some amusing dialogue, despite being subtler – the best of which involves a speech about the aliens enjoying watching humanity destroy itself, which is cut off by the intrusive sound of his beer cracking open. The addition of a low budget, annoyingly repetitive musical riffs (Carpenter’s money-saving signature compositions), and cheesy special effects can’t stop “They Live” from cleverly ending with a punch and a wink, solidifying it as one of the great cult classics of the ‘80s – wittily tackling dark science-fiction themes with goofy scripting and one-man-army rampages.
– Mike Massie