Popular professional wrestler Roddy Piper stars in John Carpenter's 'They Live' as a down-and-out working-class Joe who wants to chew bubblegum and kick some ass. Unfortunately, he's all out of bubblegum.
This is in reference to one of several great scenes throughout Carpenter's cult film, a blend of science-fiction, horror, and action, with a healthy dose of dark comedy. It's a movie that plays both as a subversive allegory on modernity — though largely lacking in subtlety — and a vociferous censure of it in a vehement and vulgar display of social politics. But rather than seeing this as a fault, I would argue it as part of Carpenter's overall point and charm, the message he's trying to drive home without bashing his audience's head with it. The aforementioned moment, which takes place inside a bank with funny dialogue by Piper, is an excellent example of a director balancing a larger metaphor with a flagrant outcry.
Going against his WWE persona, Piper is a nameless, unemployed drifter referred to as "Nada" — Spanish for nothing. He is nobody, and he is everybody. The brawny, penniless man blends into the crowd unnoticed, unseen and mostly disregarded. A nobody who lives day by day bringing as little attention to himself as possible. But he's also like the rest of us, a kind-hearted individual who still believes in the American dream of opportunity. He follows the rules doing a hard day's work and waiting for his chance to succeed, hoping it will someday come. The character is in sharp contrast to the kilt-wearing Scottish rage of the ring, and Piper is excellent as the gentle optimist and blue-collar guy viewers can relate to.
Keith David is equally terrific as a hard-working construction worker who befriends the drifter and introduces him to a local shantytown where others reside struggling to live day by day. David's Frank is similar in some respects to Piper's Nada, except Frank's priorities are towards surviving each day making money to support a family. He's a smart man, aware of how the system works when he explains his golden rule, but he adamantly wants to never be involved or stick his business in it. He finds life is easier by walking the straight and narrow line designed by that society which controls the gold. ("I've walked a white line my entire life, I'm not about to screw that up.")
These first few moments with the two protagonists and the residents of this slum area, which includes a bearded vagabond (George Buck Flower) sitting in a chair all day long complaining about the "boob tube," is integral to the story and what's about to come. Despite their desires and dreams for a better life, the people have grown apathetic and essentially conceded to the way things are. Nada and Frank have also accepted to abide by a system where only the rich and well-connected are assured a comfortable lifestyle, while the rest perish in financial ruin. A crude wake-up call comes by way of a police raid that's hauntingly familiar to recent events (one of several amazing aspects that make Carpenter's film incredibly relevant today) and signifies a changing point for Nada.
After discovering and wearing the mysterious sunglasses the following day, Nada sees the world in a new light. With a new pair of eyes, he comes to understand the world and the social structure for what it truly is. The metaphor is admittedly unpolished and fairly obvious, but hysterical all the same and the point is still the same. With this new knowledge, should he do something about it to change the system or return to his apathetic existence chewing bubblegum without a care? Circumstances, particularly the alien creatures talking into their wristwatches, push him towards the unwitting hero. By the time he makes his way into the bank and announces he's run out of bubblegum, his choice is clear.
'They Live' doesn't hide its strong stance against the Reaganomics of the 1980s and the conservative worldview of big business in general, painting a bleak totalitarian society of obedience and subjugation through advertisement and consumerism. It's plain to see, and with good reason. While the lower classes are fooled into believing money is God, the 1% of the affluent and wealthy turns out to be alien creatures with the power and technology to use subliminal messages. That's pretty hilarious. Carpenter leaves very little room to being suggestive in his imagery and story because concealing his intentional message entirely in allegory would mean backsliding to those same tactics he's opposing. Better to be honest and straightforward in a highly entertaining fashion while also asking audiences if they've run out of gum yet because it's time to kick some ass.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'They Live' to Blu-ray as a Collector's Edition package under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the normal blue case with brand new reversible cover art and a cardboard slipcover.
At startup, the disc goes to a generic main menu selection on the left side with music and full-motion clips. Unfortunately, according to the Shout! Factory website, the exclusive, limited edition poster of the newly commissioned artwork has already sold out.
Carpenter's horror sci-fi comedy transmits its subliminal messages on Blu-ray with this strong and very good 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1). Detailing is sharp and well-defined with excellent visibility in the far distance. We can easily make out every word on consumer products, revel in the slimy ugliness of the alien creatures and see every pore and scare on Roddy Piper's face. Unfortunately, there is some minor aliasing around the finer lines, which can be easy to miss. It only lasts for about the first half hour of the movie and then disappears for the remainder of the runtime.
The color palette is quite vivid but accurate with warm secondary hues and clean, animated primaries. Black levels are luxuriant and penetrating with excellent shadow delineation, except for the scene towards the end with the homeless drifter inside the TV station where the darker portions of the image suddenly blend with the tuxedo he is wearing. Contrast also seems slightly boosted, creating a slight ringing around the edges of certain objects, but thankfully, it's not to an extent that would ruin the picture quality because it's still quite good.
As with other releases in the Scream Factory line, this cult gem arrives with two listening options — in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound. The latter is actually not half bad with decent directionality and activity in the rears. Most of the time, the musical score spreads into the back speakers and maintains a satisfying soundfield. However, it can at times feel a bit forced and hollow with a low bass that seems a tad louder than normal for a movie of this age.
By far, the better of the two is the original stereo design, creating an actively engaging and expansive soundstage. Dialogue is well-prioritized with excellent channel separation and balance. Off-screen effects are convincing, and movement between the three fronts is flawless. The mid-range exhibits crystal-clear clarity and exceptional detailing in the upper frequencies. This is most apparent during sequences with music and action where we can clearly make out each individual sound and note with little effort. The low-end is healthy and appropriate, providing the lossless mix with depth and a great sense of depth.
For this latest release of 'They Live,' Shout! Factory offers a nice assortment of new special features fans will love, and they are the same set found on the DVD releasing the same day.
A great mix of sci-fi, horror, and action, with a healthy dose of dark humor, 'They Live' is a straightforward and to the point censure of the 1980s era of consumerism and excess. Directed by John Carpenter and starring Roddy Piper and Keith David, the film has grown into a much-beloved cult classic about the rich and powerful actually being alien creatures lulling the lower class into conformity and compliance. The Blu-ray arrives with a great picture quality and an even better audio presentation. Offering new, recently-recorded supplemental material, this high-def package is definitely one fans will want to pick up. Recommended.