Thoughts on “They Live”

This is the first of two movies that I had heard of through other sources before, but that my main exposure to came from Chuck Sonnenberg’s reviews over at SF Debris.  So I knew a lot of the basic plot and even some of the backstory (especially on this one) but had never watched them myself.  Thus, I was curious to see what my reaction to the movies would be when I finally sat down to watch them after finding them for a decent price.

The basic plot here is that a drifter — played by WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper — comes to a city and ends up staying in a little tent village for homeless people, that is run by a group that has a secret to hide.  When they are raided, he ends up running away in possession of a set of sunglasses that reveals that a surprisingly large number of people aren’t people at all, but are strange alien creatures (eventually called “ghouls”), who also seem to have the power in society.  Also, all of the TVs and all of the ads are replaced with direct messages — which would be subliminal for humans — to engage in capitalism and be obedient.  This leads him down a rather violent path to try to get away from them when they realize that he can see them, and then he rejoins the original group to take them down once and for all.

The movie has a pretty slow and ponderous pace, emphasized by the soundtrack which is the typical “U.S. South” harmonica type of tune that seems designed for taking things slower.  However, the movie also engages in rather frequent action sequences with a significant amount of violence, which clashes with the ponderous tone of the rest of the movie.  Now, you could argue that the reason for this was because that was what Piper himself could do, but from what I remember from Chuck’s review he wanted to play it more straight but the director wanted him to put more of his wrestling persona into the movie, which led to the famous “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of bubblegum” line.  It isn’t bad, but it’s a bit odd and the tone of the movie then shifts a bit oddly.

The movie also doesn’t seem to pay off the things that it sets up properly.  There’s a long fight scene between Piper and his friend as Piper tries to convince him to put the glasses on and see the world as it really is, and the scene really seems to drag on longer than it really should.  I’m pretty sure that’s intentional, but it dragging on that long doesn’t seem to follow from what happened before nor is paid off at all later.  So with that it just looks like an overly long fight scene.  Also, the movie seems to be trying to make a point about capitalism and the like, because the messages when they put on the glasses are all about those sorts of things, but other than those obvious things — and some obvious comments from humans who are on the side of the creatures/aliens — that theme isn’t really followed up on, nor does the conclusion play into that (the ending is him destroying a satellite dish on top of a TV station, not a bank or something).  The message is too obvious to be something that they were supposed to be using as a subtle point, but then it’s pretty much completely ignored for the most part outside of the obvious references, so those obvious references don’t seem to be paid off at all.

The worst case of this, in my opinion, is the case of the woman at the end.  In the middle of the movie, Piper takes a woman hostage as he is trying to escape the ghouls, and when the ghouls find him she shoves him out the window of her house to escape him.  He escapes, but he left his glasses behind, and she looks at them after he leaves.  Later, she appears at the meeting of the resistance group and proclaims that she’s converted to their side but that the TV station is clean, right before the authorities attack the group.  Piper is concerned about her and tries to rescue her but is separated in the confusion and has to leave her behind as he breaks into their underground compound.  He wants to find her to get her to help them, and eventually does and they head to the roof of the TV station to take out the satellite dish, and she kills his friend and then holds a gun on him, as she has betrayed them and likely betrayed the resistance group as well, to his chagrin.  He manages to put the dish down anyway, revealing the ghouls to everyone, but she dies in the explosion and he almost certainly dies soon afterwards.

The problem is that while he seemed to care about her, she doesn’t get enough play for us to really care about her.  She was briefly a hostage and the two never really connected.  We already knew that some people knew about the ghouls and worked with them deliberately to gain wealth and power, and presumably that’s why she betrayed everyone, too … except the movie never gives her a motivation for betraying them.  So she suddenly shows up being converted, and then also suddenly betrays them, and this is supposed to be emotionally impacting for us despite us knowing very little about her and perhaps because he cares about her but there’s no reason for him to care about her specifically either.  Considering how prominent she is at the ending, we really needed her to be more prominent earlier on in the movie to have the emotional payoff that the movie seems to want us to have.

For all its flaws, though, the movie is kinda fun.  Piper actually does a pretty good job with either of the two tones of the movie, and does fit neatly into the action hero line when that is made prominent.  This is a movie that I will put in the box to maybe watch again at some point, but isn’t good enough for me to rewatch it on a regular basis.  Again, kinda fun, but has enough flaws and is ponderous enough that there are definitely things I’d rather rewatch first.


5 Responses to “Thoughts on “They Live””

  1. natewinchester Says:

    No compare it to this “sort of” remake and we can discuss.

    (It’s funny because in the last month John Carpenter has come up on like 3 different websites I’ve visited so this is like my third They Live discussion.)

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, if you think that the John Carpenter thing is odd, wait until Thursday [grin].

      I watched the short film, and I’m not sure how it relates to my opinion on “They Live”. It does do a better job of focusing in the infiltration and paranoia part and does have a more consistent tone, but it also doesn’t have the consistent goal or plan aspect of “They Live”, and so the guy just kinda wanders around and is suddenly attacked. I think making an actual remake with that tone but adding more plot would work. And it’s always nice to see Jenna Coleman in something [grin]. (And she’s an interesting casting choice given that in Doctor Who Clara would have indeed encountered things like that).

      So I think that that short film could be a better treatment of it, but my comments on “They Live!” were that it was a bit inconsistent but overall entertaining. I’m not sure what you wanted me to get out of the comparison …

      • natewinchester Says:

        Sorry, busy day yesterday so I didn’t have much time to flesh out.

        I largely agree with you about Carpenter’s film. If you enjoy playing the “alternate interpretation” game with films (i.e. The Empire are the good guys in star wars) you can have a LOT of fun playing with They Live. Like what the aliens are doing being implied but never explicit. And as you pointed out, some moments feel like they were overly padded.

        I find the short film an interesting contrast as an almost “fix” of those issues. All padding removed, it’s very lean. It even provides a brief moment giving us a very on-screen reason to hate the aliens.

        The protagonist is an interesting comparison too, though I’ve often heard that a difference between American & British heroes is often active vs passive.

        I just find compare/contrasts in that manner fascinating. Heck the other day I watched 2 episodes back to back from the 2 He-man series just to see how the same motif was handled in two different ways.

        I myself define a “perfect” movie as a film which cannot be improved by adding or removing anything. So far as I’ve seen, Carpenter’s perfect movie is “The Thing.” But he never fails to be very entertaining and worth the price of admission.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        So far as I’ve seen, Carpenter’s perfect movie is “The Thing.” But he never fails to be very entertaining and worth the price of admission.

        Well, then tomorrow’s post should be VERY interesting [grin].

  2. Thoughts on “The Thing” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] of him, but don’t think I’ve ever watched anything else he’d done.  I found “They Live” flawed but entertaining, but when it comes to “The Thing” I found it to be frustrating […]

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