John Carpenter directs Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster in this sci-fi thriller satire where a drifter tries on some special sunglasses that reveal humanity is being subjugated by aliens who walk among us.
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” One of Carpenter’s less polished efforts. The killer concept proves a helluva hook, there are fabulous quotes, it is prescient as fuck and it features that infamous 6 minute alleyway fistfight. But it is fair to say once the movie shows its hand after an expert paranoid build-up to the big reveal, Carpenter doesn’t take the idea anywhere particularly compelling. The seemingly never ending brawl over a pair of RayBans is maybe Exhibit A that Carpenter did not know where to move this on to after acing the set-up. It is a silly set piece but extraneous.
Meaty Roddy Piper is adequate as John Nada, Keith David as charismatic as ever, but the most fascinating characters are those who are relatively underdeveloped. Meg Foster’s token female’s moral ambiguity is left deliciously unexplained and what’s with that tuxedo guy who thinks he knows the construction worker heroes when they crash the party? There’s part of me that wonders if Carpenter wanted to do more with these two or whether he banged this out as a quick retrofit rewrite of an early draft of Big Trouble In Little China and never ironed out the wrinkles? He loves to recycle, just look at the format similarities between Assault On Precinct 13 and Prince Of Darkness, for example. Maybe that explains the loose ends and overlap between these two projects.
Anyhoo… a fun cult item, even if our grumpy autuer is only at half power. The real juice is the patient yet thrilling sequence where Piper sees the real world for the first time, those colonising blue muscle faced humanoid freaks going about the every day as if they were one of us. It is a perfect 15 minutes and I’m definite the Wachowskis cribbed from it for the first act of The Matrix. What self respecting sci-fi movie couldn’t say that though? This joyously features less five syllable words… though wouldn’t it be fun to see a blocky wrestler try and say ‘simulacra’ and ‘perception’ in the same sentence? Carpenter knows to show, not tell. The rich / poor and them / us dynamic of this is pretty on the nose and maybe that is the reason They Live (along with Trading Places and Brewster’s Millions) is a ripe IP that bizarrely the global corporation which own the rights has never decided to reboot or revisit the well.
Perfect Double Bill: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
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