Blu-ray Review: THEY LIVE

Brian takes a look at the special edition Blu of John Carpenter's THEY LIVE. 

Shout! Factory is obviously cashing in on the (thankfully over) 2012 Election with their release of John Carpenter's They Live on special edition Blu-ray, but it's not the first time the film had a timely release. They Live made its theatrical debut just a few days before the 1988 election, which makes the fact that it was the rare Carpenter film to debut at #1 all the more amusing. Americans made a huge success of a film about how Republicans are actually aliens out to take over the world, and then went and voted one into office. Maybe they agreed with Meg Foster's and George "Buck" Flower's characters.

Naturally, like almost all Carpenter films in some way or another, it holds up well and is possibly even more relevant today. Obviously he was drawing heavily from "Reagonomics" and '80s yuppie culture, but one can't help but see the parallels to today's world in its depiction of class struggle. The movie's greatest asset is that its heroes are hard-working poor people (easy enough for me to identify with), while its villains are newscasters (FOX News, anyone?) and assorted business types, not unlike the ones that drove us to economic turmoil a few years back. A remake is threatened every now and then, but unlike Halloween or The Fog, this might be one worth exploring, provided a smart filmmaker is behind it.

But even if you ignore the social and political commentary (why not? I did when I was 12, the first time I saw it and had no idea what satire even was), it's still an enjoyable mystery/action flick, with three distinct acts that keep the film from ever feeling repetitive or dull. In act one, our hero Nada (Roddy Piper) finds a job and some comfort in a homeless shanty town, only to discover something suspicious going on nearby. Once he investigates, he finds a mysterious load of boxes, and is about to discover more when the town is raided by police, paving the way for a terrific battle/chase scene that rivals any of the big action sequences in Carpenter's Escape films (or Big Trouble In Little China, minus the martial arts).

The second act finds Nada opening one of those boxes and discovering the famous magic sunglasses, which reveal not only the subliminal messaging hidden inside every billboard and piece of paper in the city, but also the true nature of the aliens that are disguised as humans. More action follows, including the film's most heralded scene - a six minute fight between Piper and Keith David, as the former tries to force the latter to put on the glasses and see what he sees. This is probably the film's most entertaining section - it's got a lot of action (with Piper performing a few of his wrestling moves) and all those lines you've heard quoted a bit too much over the years.

The third is the least successful, though not for a lack of ambition. In fact that's the problem - it clearly needed more than its $3 million budget allowed, so things seem a bit rushed and cheap as Nada and Frank join up with the resistance and set their plans in motion to expose the alien menace to the world at large. Major supporting characters are killed off without fanfare, there are a few too many basic shootouts and there are unexplained sci-fi elements like magic portal watches that probably could have been explained a bit better. It's not bad by any means, but these blemishes prevent the film from being the full blown classic its first hour suggested it would be.

But it's earned so much goodwill by then, it barely matters. Carpenter's well documented hatred of authority figures bleeds from every frame, making it a treasure for his fans. His score is terrific; a nice blend of bluesy guitar solos and his usual electronic/synth driven mood cues. And it's always nice to see Keith David playing a hero instead of some hardass military guy, just as it is AMAZING to see fellow Carpenter regular Buck Flower, a man who pretty much exclusively played winos and lowlifes, dressed in a nice suit and sipping on champagne. And apart from In The Mouth Of Madness, it's sadly the last of his films that you don't have to apologize for liking - it's just actually good.

Shout seems to agree, loading it up with bonus features. The best is, FINALLY!, the commentary track with Carpenter and Piper that has been available for years in other regions but never in the region where the film was made (I took great pleasure in tossing my featureless, snapper case Image DVD in my "to get rid of" pile). It was recorded in 2000, which is a shame since the administration of Bush Jr. might have given Carpenter something to chew on, but as with any track where he's joined by his star, what we get is an enjoyable "hang out" commentary where they reminisce, make each other laugh and tell stories. It's not too screen specific, but that's fine - it's definitely worth a listen, and kudos to Shout for doing whatever they had to do to get it over here, as I'm pretty sure Carpenter never watches his movies again after recording the commentary and thus probably wouldn't have done another.

They've also unearthed the film's original behind the scenes EPK from 1988, which is charming and focuses a lot on a rather chipper Carpenter, providing a nice contrast on a new interview with the master, featuring the rather blunt, borderline grumpy modern version we all know and love. He talks about the cast, the film's themes, etc - it's pretty basic. As are the new interviews with Meg Foster and Keith David (though the latter spends half of it talking about The Thing, which is awesome), making me wonder why Shout/Red Shirt didn't combine them all (plus the other piece that combines Alan Howarth, DP Gary Kibbe and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada) into one 30-35 minute retrospective doc, as they did for Halloween II and III. Not that the interviews are bad, but they're brief and not very substantial on their own, so at least combined we'd have less futzing around with menus and something that seemed more thorough - Voltron logic, really. Some TV spots, the trailer and the uncut versions of the television commercials round things out. And if you're not a fan of the new, rather busy artwork Shout has commissioned for this release, they have provided the original image on the flipside of the sleeve - awesome little touch for us purists.

Much like Carpenter's other late '80s film for Alive (Prince of Darkness - hey Shout, can you pick that one up, too?), I think They Live gets better every time I watch it. It's got some issues, but in this day of sci-fi movies that are more concerned with FX than ideas, it's a breath of fresh air, and thankfully Carpenter was smart enough to make sure it was still an entertaining flick for those who might not necessarily agree with its politics. On that note - Carpenter 2016!

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