reviewed by Tom-Tom
John Carpenter’s film whether successful or not are always at least compelling projects with unique ideas presented without glamour or pretentiousness. I have always liked the handmade quality of sets, makeup, and special effects in his films. It gives me a sense that real people made his films with love and hard work rather than a faceless cooperation. Of course hard work makes all films regardless of the presence of CGI or not. Even so, Carpenter’s films have a real populist appeal for me. This bring me our present film for review They Live. Roddy Piper, a popular villain character in the WWF world and even in the cartoon show adaptation I watched growing is the hero of this picture. He is out of work and homeless in an American economy plagued by recession and unemployment. This should sound very familiar to current viewers. The music score is blues riff heavy as he arrives off of a train the hobo way. The entire scene was copied wholesale in “Hobo With a Shotgun” to great effect. The words of a street preacher about the powerful being perched on the weak from birth to death probably inspired the entire Matrix series. He meets Keith Richards at a construction job, both of them flexing their muscles not wanting to be outdone by the other. Richards leads him to a homeless community with food, boarding, and hot showers. They commiserate about hard times and big cooperations who thank their workers with layoffs and raises for the executives. Having been born in Pittsburgh during the 80’s steel factory layoffs, this conversation really struck a chord with me.
It soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. A hacker is breaking through the vapid TV broadcasts extolling the greatness of America and asking its viewers to buy, buy, buy, to give yourself worth. The hacker attempts to convince all that we are all in a state of sleep and that “they” are in charge and transmitting a signal which ensures our enslavement. The community elders seem to be acting strangely: staying late at the local church, meeting in secret, wearing matching sunglasses at night etc. Police arrive in the night to raid the church and bulldoze the community. They beat the blind street preacher and his comrades with nightsticks. All are scattered. So much for the American dream.
Piper finds a box of sunglasses in the ruins of the church. Disappointed, he throws all but one into the trash. Here the real film begins. Wearing the glasses several things become quickly obvious. They make him see things in black and white, literally. Every billboard, magazine, sign, liquor label, even bills of currency is offering subliminal messages very clearly and in bold letters. It’s a remarkable experience. Things come to a head when many seemingly well off individuals turn out to be not only stinking rich but…I’ll leave you to enjoy this stunning and amusing revelation. Piper quickly arms himself as the antagonists realize his discovery of their secret and is besought on all sides by police and “special citizen” alike. He forges an alliance with Keith Richards and they both attempt to stick it to the man after an overlong physical altercation. I suppose this was to be expected. You don’t put Roddy Piper in a movie and just expect him to walk around dazed looking at the “real world.” He’s a professional wrestler for goodness sake. Aside from a few clumsy missteps in dialogue, the pointless debacle, and a silly plot twist towards the end, “They Live” is an engaging conspiracy film making an amusing yet poignant debate on the reason behind the gulf between the haves and have-nots. The themes in this film inspired “The Arrival,” the Matrix series, and other conspiracy thrillers. It’s exciting and intriguing though not without its faults.