Paranoia! Guns! Subliminal Messaging! Wrestling! A low budget but superb, wonderfully rounded slice of sci-fi.
Sometimes, against the slings and arrows of outrageously small budgets, a film can through talent and a strong script become an exceptional film. They Live is one of them.
John Carpenter is a director who should be known to you, director of The Thing, Prince Of Darkness, Christine and Escape From New York amongst others. Having done some relatively high profile films before this, Carpenter decided to return to his low budget roots in a very thinly disguised attack on the dangers on unrestrained capitalism, while also satisfying his desire to make the longest one-on-one fight in movie history. To facilitate this he adapted a Ray Nelson short story, Eight O'Clock in the Morning and made a few brave casting decisions. Most notable amongst these being the hiring of 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper.
Known to millions as the wise-cracking, asshole WWF nemesis of Hulk Hogan and the like, Piper probably wouldn't top most peoples list of preferred actors but the gamble pays off as he puts in a sterling performance in the role of Nada. Nada is easy to identify with, although he's seemingly part of a dying breed. Very much an Everyman character, Nada has a simple view of life where he works an honest day for an honest dollar. He's even got his own tools. He arrives off a train into L.A. and searches for work on a construction site. Although not strictly adhering to the union rules, he is hired as a casual labourer by the foreman. After an initial distrust, he grows friendly with fellow worker Frank (Keith David) who takes him to a kind of shanty town on the outskirts of the city, a camp of the homeless which is as good a place to live as any when you're just in town with no money.
An observant fellow, Nada notices an unusual amount of activity at a local church. Having already established him as a suspicious fellow, Nada investigates further. The church seems to play host to a brigade of revolutionaries, worried that their message isn't getting across to the people and how they must intensify their campaign. At this point, what they're campaigning against isn't clear, and there's a real sense of creeping paranoia about the movie. The atmosphere in no small parts is created by Carpenter's self composed simplistic and repetitive soundtrack, which somehow manages not to annoy despite it seemingly being played for the majority of the film.
A raid on these malcontents by the overly enthusiastic, blind-priest-beating police force leads to their members being scattered, along with the bystanders in Camp Homeless. Carpenter shows his skill as both a director and cinematographer by making a vanishingly small numbers of actors and equipment look like a major police operation without sacrificing believability. Sneaking back, Nada finds a number of boxes containing something largely unexpected - sunglasses. Nada is as puzzled by this as we are, hiding the unusual contraband in a dumpster. The specs have a suitably unexpected effect when worn as Nada begins to notice some fairly large differences in the world, most immediately obvious being the huge advertising billboards being replaced with simple, huge black text on white background messages urging him to "Consume", "Obey", "Do not question authority". These subliminal messages extend to every bit of printed material available at the local news stand, and Nada becomes aware of broadcasting devices atop traffic lights spewing out the simple message "Sleep".
Who is behind this nefarious plan? Evil space aliens of course, who else? Nada's jaw understandably drops seeing the horrific aliens walking amongst us, with only Nada being able to distinguish them now the subliminal effects are being counteracted by his shades. It's difficult to describe how effective this has been introduced, by the palpable atmosphere created with skill by Carpenter and the effective portrayal by Piper stops what when written is a terribly silly concept seeming silly. Suspension of disbelief is often difficult to come by at the low end of the budgets, but is achieved here in spades.
Nada rails against the aliens as he tries to work out what's gong on, first merely by insulting them. This, while hilarious, Piper displaying many of the Mic skills picked up as a Pro Wrestler, may not be the finest strategy as the aliens send their agents after him. The police and indeed every aspect of life has been infiltrated by these aliens, and it's two of L.A.'s finest that are sent after Nada. Nada, who beats hell out of them, stealing their weapons will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. Now armed, the scene is set for one of the defining scenes and certainly one of the defining lines in action movie history as Nada strolls into a bank with shotgun slung over his shoulder, announcing to the stunned audience, "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass......And I'm all outta bubblegum." The resultant attack goes poorly for any xenoform present, as Nada uses his shotgun to full effect. Again, the sudden jump into action ought to hurt the atmosphere and possibly spoil the film, but somehow doesn't.
Nada makes good his escape from the bank by hijacking a car driven by a T.V. executive, Holly (Meg Foster). He reluctantly forces her at gunpoint to drive back to her place to plan his next move, but can't convince her of the situation the world has got itself into. He lets his guard down for a second allowing Holly to smack him with a bottle, propelling him over the balcony of her house and tumbling down a fairly substantial hill. Nada survives, just. He scampers off to lick his wounds, trying to involve Frank in this little escapade. Frank tries not to associate with mass murderers, so he's a little difficult to convince.
So Nada does the only thing available to him, he beats some sense into him. Frank's no pushover, so this results in a knock-down, drag-out slobberknocker of a fight of the kind rarely seen in movies these days. It's actually hugely refreshing in these days where seemingly everyone in films are born knowing all manner of kung-fu-chop-sockey skills to see two guys hammering each other where the most complicated and elegant move is kneeing someone in the head. Roddy, being an 'rassler, even gets to work in a gut-wrench suplex on Keith David, a brave move for Keith as it could easily result in him being dropped on his head given Keith's lack of experience. Both guys knock the stuffing out of each other and genuinely hurt each other, deciding the most realistic way to have a fight is to, well, have a fight. It's almost ridiculously long, well choreographed and generally a joy to behold, certainly for anyone with a penchant for fisticuffs.
After Frank sees the error of his ways, the pair try to find out what's happening, pooling their resources with the remaining freedom fighters. They discover what they may have suspected all along, that the ruling classes are in on this. Humans have been taking the quick buck and selling out their entire species for 30 pieces of silver. Obviously this is the main theme of the film, the ultimate act of capitalism. Carpenter shows a pessimistic but all too true view of humanity. Clearly we are our own worst enemy, the aliens are almost immaterial when money rules peoples minds more than their hearts do.
Again the pacing has changed, as the action gives way to a relatively lengthy exposition of the aliens plans and the human sell-out's situation, with Carpenter ratcheting up the suspense and paranoia elements. Of course, a film such as this has to end with a bang and this is no exception, as Frank and Nada try to take out the root source of the signals that are subduing the general population.
Carpenter does a great job of building the tension to the action sequences, although it must be said that this final one is the weakest, as Frank and Nada gun down substantial numbers of (presumably) highly trained SWAT personnel. Occasionally they turn and shoot, just before their enemies walk round a corner into their hail of bullets, indicative of either psychic ability or botched timing. The execution of the ending is perhaps the least of the film, but it can't spoil it too much. The ideas are there, and that's probably the most important thing.
It should be obvious by now that I'm fond of this film. Against any reasonable expectation Piper oozes charisma by the bucketload and it's so incredibly easy to cheer him on that the occasional ropy effect can be easily forgiven. It's a credit to Carpenter that this is never a major problem; moving the focus away from the aliens in particular to the evils within humans themselves. Of course, the fact that the aliens can only be seen when Nada's got his specs on helps to reduce the effects budget a little.
It's at times a strange mix of paranoia, tension and over-the-top gunplay, but there always exists a fine balance that makes this film a pleasure to watch. Proof that great things can come from little money.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Keith David (Frank)
Meg Foster (Holly)