“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I am all out of bubble gum” – Nada, They Live (1988)
A cult classic, that is what I need after the boring and genuinely terrible mess that was La La Land (2016). Or, as I have written in my notes, Up It’s Own Arse Land (2016). Still, I ended up buying a copy of They Live brand new from HMV, a very rare occurrence for me. I rarely ever buy things new, but the box art was phenomenal and it was on sale. So, here we are, a film I had been wanting to watch for a very long while. One of the reasons I have for buying this is that a while ago someone recommended I review it. So thank you for that, whoever you are, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
John Carpenter as both a director and composer is always a pleasure. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) was pretty good, it has that 80s vibe to the camera angles. You know what I mean, a lot of establishing shots, long, unedited close ups of speaking characters and a funky soundtrack. Much of that is apparent in They Live, for better or for worse. Most modern films have a very big focus on their direction, especially what I’ve been watching recently. With They Live there isn’t anything about the direction that is unique or eventful, but that was exactly what I was expecting.
In regard to the musical aspect of the film, again led by Carpenter, it’s marvellous. Music in film should set the tone and compliment what we see and that’s exactly what it does here. See what I’ve noticed so far with John Carpenter is that he likes to go for an almost B-Movie vibe, without actually playing into what we would expect of a low budget film. Take They Live for example, the premise is extremely weird and shouldn’t work, yet it does. Some of the acting and scenes throughout are pretty cheesy but that’s only adding to the charm of the film on the whole.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate the performance of Rowdy Roddy Piper? To say I was surprised at how great is performance was is an understatement. Other than being a great Kurt Russell look alike, he provides an astoundingly brilliant performance. Professional wrestlers from the 1980s never tend to give decent performances. If you need any proof of that then watch a film that Hulk Hogan stars in. What I’m trying to explain though is that, for a wrestler, Roddy Piper is an amazing actor.
Sure, it’s not Oscar worthy levels of acting but he does a hell of a job. Nada is a cult 80s icon and it’s absolutely because of his performance. It’d be hard to discuss this film without first talking about the amazing performance of Roddy Piper. He manages to blend a serious bit of acting with a comedic and blatantly weird script well.
One surprise for me in particular for me was seeing a young Keith David. Film fans may know him from The Nice Guys (2016), but I knew him from Halo and Saints Row. It’s a pleasant surprise. Honestly after watching this film, Roddy Piper’s inclusion in the fourth game makes a hell of a lot of sense. David’s acting as a supporting role for Nada is great and works very well. Yes, if you’ve seen this film you’re probably thinking of that ten minute fight scene between the two of them. Literally two men throwing each other about in a back alley for ten whole minutes. Now, I’m not going to lie, but it was pretty good. Obviously not on the same level as the staircase fight from Atomic Blonde (2017), but still fairly good. Could it have been shorter? Of course it could have, but it was strangely funny in length and performance.
Aside from that fight scene, the action in this film is pretty solid. Obviously the most memorable scene of all is when Nada enters the bank. As far as the action itself goes though, there’s really not that much I remember. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very fun film, but I can’t actually remember any of the action scenes. The ones I do remember are extremely funny because of how B-Movie it feels. That’s possibly the best part about this film though, just how seriously it tries to present itself.
Sure, I guess I could talk about what the aliens represent and how it mocks that of a capitalist society. Always needing things to be happy and with money as the ultimate goal. I could do that, however I don’t want to because to be quite honest it would ruin the film for you. It’s not that it’s a big reveal but because of how great it makes the film, and me talking about it doesn’t do it justice.
As far as the cinematography and the direction of the film is concerned, it’s good. Like I said earlier it’s pretty generic given the constraints of the time period. Although this does limit the film in artistic ways, it’s never really the focus of the film. For anyone who has in fact seen this film you’ll know it’s all about bad one liners and some freaky ideas. The end product of this film on the whole is genuinely surprising. Quite obviously this film shouldn’t work, but it just sort of does in a weird and quirky way.
As a film that tries to be a B-Movie, it certainly captures the essence of the times. Although the film did in fact release nearer to the 1990s, it certainly feels like a very 80s film. It’s very difficult to review a film like this because I’ve quite honestly got no clue what to say about it. Carpenter’s direction is intentionally funny, as are the performances of Keith David and Rowdy Roddy Piper. The cliches are all on purpose, only adding to the overall hilarity of the film. If anything it seems to be a mockery of the 1980s and the early 1950s of films. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) springs to mind when watching this one.
It’s a solid piss take film. But there’s a key difference between this and something like Army of One (2016) or Foodfight! (2012). The difference is that They Live is a genuinely fantastic film. The action is superb, the acting a genuine pleasure, with a soundtrack that works well and direction from one of the best directors of all. Every moment of this film is either integral to the story or hilariously good fun. Frequent action set pieces throughout have that sloppy look to them and instead of being off putting it’s sort of heartwarming in this weird way.
Carpenter, David and of course Roddy Piper are a great trio that work well together. The three provide miracle work to make a film that just shouldn’t work, work. Somehow, out of everything I’ve ever seen, this is possibly one of the best films of all time. Just because it shouldn’t have worked, and of course because of that ten minute fight scene. I don’t think I’ve watched a John Carpenter film and haven’t liked it, so he’s got that going for him. It’s a very niche market to make films for, but for those that like this sort of thing, you’ll be right at home here.