"Put on the damn glasses, already!"
THEY LIVE was written and directed by John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN, THE THING , ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, MOUTH OF MADNESS, GHOSTS OF MARS) and was based on a short story by Ray Nelson. It opens with the arrival of a big man (Roddy Piper: HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, TERMINAL RUSH, SCI-FIGHTERS) wearing a backpack at the L.A. train depot. This character is listed in the credits as "Nada" but at no point in the movie is he referred to by name (get it? "Nada"? his character didn't have a name? Oh John! You card! -feo).
Nada is homeless, riding the rails, looking for work. He manages to talk his way into a construction job but has no place to stay until he gets a paycheck or two. On the construction site he makes friends with another big guy named Frank (Keith David: THE THING , THE PUPPET MASTERS, PITCH BLACK) and Frank tells Nada about a nearby shantytown in a city park. Frank lives there himself.
Clearly, times are tough. Most of the residents of the shantytown have a dim view of the future but "Nada" tells Frank, as they gaze toward the skyscrapers of downtown L.A., that he believes in America. He believes things will get better. Not in this movie, pal.
Nada begins noticing some odd goings on around the park. A blind preacher (Raymond St. Jaques: TIME BOMB, VOODOO DAWN) evangelizes about how our masters don't want us to wake up. And the only working TV in the shantytown frequently has its signal interrupted by a pirate broadcast that warns of an evil conspiracy. Everyone notices that when the pirate signal takes over the TV they rub their eyes and feel a headache coming on. George 'Buck' Flower (THE NIGHT STALKER), credited just as "Drifter", makes his usual John Carpenter movie appearance as a resident of the shantytown always parked in front of the TV.
Nada also notices Gilbert (Peter Jason: ALIEN NATION, GHOSTS OF MARS), the shantytown's sort-of leader, involved in hushed discussions at the church across the street. Nada sneaks inside and finds boxes of sunglasses and a tape recorder playing church music, creating the illusion of a service going on. He also sees the equipment for transmitting pirate TV signals.
That night the police raid the church and bulldoze the pitiful shacks in the park, scattering the residents including Nada. The next morning there's nothing but wreckage, although strangely the TV is still intact, blaring commercials. Nada finds a box of the odd sunglasses left in the church so he takes the box and hides it in an alley. And then comes the really cool part: he puts the sunglasses on.
Many movies have done the aliens-are-among-us storyline but here it's magnificent. When Nada puts on these specially manufactured sunglasses he suddenly sees the world as it really is. Billboards that everyone else sees as advertisements for vacations and skin crème he sees as simple statements: "Obey", "Marry and Reproduce", "Stay Asleep" and "Watch TV". These subliminal messages are everywhere, even printed on the money ("This Is Your God"). Strange observation craft, unseen by everyone else, cruise through the sky. And scariest of all, Nada can now see that some people are not people. They are the alien masters the blind preacher warned about.
The only unfortunate choice here was the alien make-up. The alien faces are stiff to the point of being obvious masks, especially when they talk. It's distracting and makes you wonder what Carpenter was thinking. It looks cheap. Speaking of cheap, there's a later scene where the aliens are using a communicator / tricorder device that is obviously the same prop Egon used in GHOSTBUSTERS. It looks very out of place and if you recognize it, it jars your suspension of disbelief.
Nada wanders the streets of downtown L.A., marveling at the true nature of the world. He is a man of action, however, and finally can't resist telling an alien woman just how ugly she is. The result is her report into a watch radio: "I've got one who can see!" The alien controlled police force comes running. Nada has a series of close calls punctuated by some cool dialogue and a run in with the beautiful Meg Foster (LEVIATHAN) as Holly, the TV station executive. It's surprising that Roddy Piper didn't become more of an action star after this because he did a great job here.
There's one more scene I must mention. At one point Nada tries to get his friend Frank to put on a pair of the mystical, magical sunglasses. This is after Nada has blown away about a dozen aliens with a shotgun which, remember, looks to everyone else like he's just killing people at random. Frank thinks he's crazy. So they fight. And then they fight some more in one of the longest, most pointless fight scenes in movie history.
In fact, what's really missing here is a behind-the-scenes interview or something similar where maybe Carpenter would explain some of these odd choices. Alas, the DVD has no extras.
Finally, although the science is fine as far as it goes, I do feel the need for a
!!!POLITICAL SCIENCE MOMENT!!!: (Now you are a political scientist? Oh brother! -feo)
Then Carpenter gets in his limo and is driven to his Beverly Hills mansion. You can bite me, John. I'll tell you the same thing I told Spielberg (he wasn't there when I said it, but that's beside the point): "You're a good story teller so tell me a story and keep your political naiveté to yourself.
Dance for me, monkey boy! Dance!"
I give THEY LIVE three shriek girls.
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