They Live
"Interesting, but not up to the standard of Carpenter's earlier work."

Almost every John Carpenter flick is cult, or underrated, or a sleeper. It seems that audiences never truly "get" his films until long after their release. Only now are people warming slightly to Escape From LA.

They Live is no exception. It takes forever to get going and has hardly any dialogue. But remember, I'm talking from the angle of someone who lives in an era where there is always an explosion in the first 10 minutes, just to interest the audience.

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Taken from a short story, Eight O'Clock In The Morning, the film focuses on John Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter, who comes to LA in search of work. After scrounging a job at a construction site, he stays in a shantytown, run by Gilbert (Peter Jason), and becomes friendly with Frank (Keith David). After a while, he reckons that Gilbert is up to no good, as he is always disappearing into the gospel church across the street, and is reluctant to spill the beans too easily.

Nada gets the feeling something's not quite right. And so do we. Only we can't figure out what. Then the fuzz show up and lay waste to the shantytown. Nada just stands there and watches, looking totally confused. Next day, he raids the church, only to find boxes of sunglasses. He swipes a pair and when he wears them, not only does he see in black-and-white, but the world isn't quite the same. Ads and billboards tell him to "Eat", "Sleep" or "Marry And Reproduce". Magazines say nothing but "No Independent Thought" and "Do Not Question Authority". But, most distressingly, some humans do not look human in the least. They have big bulging eyes, with purple skull-heads. Naturally, Nada is freaked out.

Everything rests on his shoulders. He hardly ever speaks, yet the story is told through his eyes. We know what he knows only by reaction and facial expression. It's a difficult role and yet Piper handles is pretty good. Although the dialogue is pure exposition, Carpenter never fully presents us, or Nada, with a threatening situation.

Obviously, the non-humans are aliens. But, like the tagline says, who are they, and what do they want? It seems like they want to rule the world and exploit the working class, but that's the way things are anyhow. Apparently, they lead ordinary lives. If they weren't around, then someone would still be running the show, probably in the exact same way.

It is because of this that Nada's sudden desire to go on an alien killing spree is too much to handle. Carpenter fails to make much of the movie after this. Meg Foster's character is almost totally irrelevant and extraneous. She serves no purpose. The prolonged fight scene between Nada and Frank is supposed to be funny, but simply isn't. It just feels odd and the comedy doesn't come through. I guess Carpenter let this scene go because Piper had a lot of wrestling experience and it might be a good idea to film a less fake-looking fight with him. Although Nada and Frank are friends, the reason for them to beat the crap out of each is stupid and not ironic at all.

The ending is a bit abrupt, but the director has never been one for indulgence. It's a good ending though and it will make you laugh, which is fortunate, because you're hardly likely to smile much in the second half.

Interesting, but not up to the standard of Carpenter's earlier work.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2002
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Alien conspiracy to brainwash California is exposed by looking at life through "magic" sunglasses.
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Daniel Hooper ****

Director: John Carpenter

Writer: Frank Armitage

Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Raymond St Jacques

Year: 1988

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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