John Carpenter’s They Live is a bizarre science fiction of what if everything we knew of reality was in fact a projection to keep the human race pacified and monitored like sheep. When a drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that lets him see what the world really looks like and more importantly that certain humans are creatures from another world, well the natural response of course is to start killing them.
It starts slow but when the discovery is made the film gets really interesting as the film’s depiction of the two different realities is very memorable. Roddy Piper plays the drifter, credited as John Nada isn’t much of a character, he’s a badass with some pretty terrible one liners but still really cool. He’s a man looking for work and after witnessing a police raid against a secret church he becomes curious and goes to investigate, Nada discovers the box of glasses and realises that the messages warning of evil powers controlling the earth are true. Nada has a brief period of disbelief of whats happening but the moment it all clicks for him, he has zero qualms in mowing everyone down.
The story is clever and is a great satire on how consumerism and greed is toxic to the world but Carpenter’s film lacks a strong structure. There is no real sense of danger to the film, Piper’s performance of Nada lacks an emotional urgency to whats happening and doesn’t seem to take whats happening very seriously at all. I have a feeling long time Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell could have done wonders as this protagonist. Keith David plays Nada’s a reluctant friend after a long street fight (it’s like 10 minutes) but like Nada after some moments of disbelief he’s ready to kill, no question. The film however never tries to sell itself as a serious drama but the level of disbelief can be distracting at some times.
It’s social commentary is fantastic, how humanity’s elite sold itself out for profit to the creatures, the free will of humanity in exchange for heightened percentages in their earnings. Maybe’s that the brilliance of Piper and David’s performance, they’re regular working Joe’s, the moment they find out the world is in danger from creatures they immediately fight to defend it. It’s absurd but the action of seeing the two characters take on the monsters is awesome and frightening, imagine everyone around you is actually a completely different creature.
Carpenter’s potential with They Live isn’t fully realised but it is a solid entry to the science fiction. It’s clear that this film had an influence in later science fiction films and its tribute to one’s previous. The “real world” that Nada discovers resembles the visual aesthetic of old 1950’s sci-fi films. The alien designs, the machines and the artwork of the world’s subliminal imagery is iconic. Despite the film’s faults you can really enjoy the carnage that Roddy Piper unleashes on our invading neighbours. This film is worth watching many times just for the greatness that is John Nada’s one liners, so good but yet so bad!