Review: They Live (1988)

D: John Carpenter
S: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster

As you can probably tell, I've been on a bit of a John Carpenter kick lately, and there are at least two JC movies that I've always wanted to watch all the way through, but up until now (for one reason or another) haven't: They Live and The Thing.  Of course, I've seen parts of both of these movies (how could you possibly not?), and They Live is of course most famous for the five-minute fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David, which is perhaps the single longest, and dumbest, fight ever put to film.  However, when viewed in the proper perspective (not to mention with the proper amount of inebriation), the movie stands up surprisingly well.  Or, at least as well as can be expected for a movie starring "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.

The movie takes place at the turn of the millennium, in a falling-down version of Los Angeles.  Poverty is the worst it's ever been, and the chasm between the upper and lower classes is larger than ever.  Nada (yes, that's Roddy Piper's character's name) shows up as a drifter, wearing everything he owns on his back.  He joins up with a group of homeless folks, including the aforementioned Keith David, whom he joins on a construction crew.  Even within the homeless camp, people are fixated on the television and its commercial messages...and frustrated when strange messages start to appear, interrupting their distractions from the doldrums of their lives.  Nada notices something strange about the nearby church, and sneaks in to find the prayers and songs that fill the building are all pre-recorded.  He listens in on some kind of talk of a "resistance", and finds strange chemical apparatuses and boxes of...sunglasses.

Before he can question the folks in the church, the police attack, raiding the place with the force of a small army.  They tear up the homeless camp with bulldozers, and beat as many people as possible into submission.  They strip the church to its walls, but somehow don't find the cache of sunglasses.  Nada takes a box, pulls a pair of the glasses out, and puts them on.  Turns out, the "resistance" was real, and some kind of alien civilization has blended in with ours, visible only to those wearing the sunglasses.  Everything in the world now has some form of subliminal message attached to it: "OBEY", "MARRY AND PROCREATE", "CONFORM", and many others - magazines, advertising signs, political posters, etc.  These creatures have infiltrated the highest echelons of society, as well as the political and law enforcement aspects of the world.  In essence, they control everything.  And Nada, having earlier proclaimed his love for the American dream, can't take this.

So, he goes on a one-man killing spree, setting into motion the events leading up to that classic fistfight with Frank, Keith David's character.  I can't honestly recall how many times the line "Put on the glasses!" or some variation thereof is spoken.  Anyway, Frank eventually puts the glasses on, sees the truth, and joins Nada in his plans.  The story from here is pretty predictable - Frank and Nada rejoin the resistance, and in the middle of a battle with the police forces that begins turning out very badly, they disappear into the depths of Los Angeles, where they find more aliens and the source of the signal that is covering their true appearances from the people of Earth.

Granted, it's not the best movie ever made, and not even the best John Carpenter movie ever made.  However, it is definitely up there on the list of the best "bad" movies ever made.  Even leaving out the 5-minute long fistfight, there's enough cheesy goodness in this movie to keep even the most jaded 80s horror movie fan happy.  Perhaps it's the classic "I'm here to chew bubble gum and kick some ass...and I'm all out of gum" line, maybe it's the very cheesy-cool black-and-white sequences, with their nearly-authentic 1950's style special effects, and maybe it's just the fact that the movie stars a professional wrestler.  But it's really the combination of all these, and more, that seals the deal for this movie.  VERY highly recommended, particularly if for some odd reason you're a Carpenter fan who HASN'T seen this yet.  I have to say, I seriously regret not seeing this thing sooner, and plan on inflicting it upon my friends in the very, very near future.