John Carpenter's ham-fisted statement on multi-national corporate mind control lacks the subtlety required to make it's point, but certainly entertains in a goofy way. The film is obviously influenced by the likes of 50's Sci-Fi, the Twilight Zone and George Orwell and when it really tries, it looks fantastic.
The basic plot of the film is that the world is being secretly run by aliens who control all of the media and, to a certain extent, financial institutions. They maintain this control by broadcasting mind-altering signals that work to mask their real identities (they look like skeletal monsters) as well as their real intentions (billboards that advertise perfume are really plain white boards with messages that read "Obey", "Consume", "Marry and Reproduce", and my favorite "Do Not Question Authority").
Some people (people meaning, in this sense, "puny humans") get wise to what's going on and develop sunglasses that allow the wearers to see things as they really are. This is where 80's wrestling star "Rowdy" Roddy Piper comes in. Looking like a blond headed Glen Danzig, Piper plays an out of work drifter who's come to own a pair of these magical glasses and immediately starts fighting and gunning down as many aliens as he can. In addition to his barrel chest and arsenal of automatic weapons, he's armed with one liners that are so painfully bad that one can't help but laugh - "I'm here to chew bubblegum and kick some serious ass....and I'm all out of bubblegum." Even the Governator himself could have crafted better lines.
It's evident from the way the film moves and looks that it's not just an homage to 1950's paranoia films, but it's meant to be silly and ridiculous, much like Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. The commentary on class war and greed takes a lot from George Romero as well, who gets a shout out later in the film.
They Live is not a bad sci-fi / horror / action flick, but it falls short of it's potential. At times it's very well done - especially the black and white scenes of "reality" that are seen through the glasses. But Piper was a bad choice for leading man, his acting clumsy and forced, his dialogue cheesy and painful to listen to. There are times when his Saskatoon accent is so thick I found myself asking "what did he say?", but that's only a minor distraction. The same could be said about his flowing river of mulletude.
Fun and mindless (which may be a disappointment to Carpenter who might have really been trying to make some sort of political statement...) but I'll stick with Invasion of the Body Snatchers for my dose of American Paranoia.
- Complaint Dept