Directed by: John Carpenter
Screenplay by: John Carpenter
Produced by: Larry Franco
Cast: Roddy Piper. Keith David. Meg Foster.
Duration: 94 mins
This film was based in the book ‘8 o’clock in the morning’ by Ray Nelson and won two Saturn awards as well as making lists for top films, top cult hits and even top fight sequences. So why had a I never heard of this? It is widely stated to be John Carpenter’s revelation as a director and spawned the fashion icon ‘Obey’ that passes us on baseball caps like a steady stream in the popular culture current of today from the origins of 1988. Seriously where has this cheeky scamp of a film been hiding?
The general premise is that our main character portrayed by ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper finds that the ruling class is actually governed by and includes an alien race that control the lower classes to work, reproduce and ultimately of course ‘obey’ which is the special sweet ingredient in this tasty recipe of capitalist cake. This is essentially the matrix for the 80’s an age where plot lived on its own sheer desire to entertain and no logic fuel was needed to keep going, where a funky, upbeat soundtrack and muscle-bound hero spouting cliches can replace a sound explanation. This was the age of cinema when our homeless, drifter hero can be armed with nothing but the blunt, message of a name to beat his opposition to death with. The name of John Nada (Piper).
The music is typically 80’s revelling in its own electric nonsense but sometimes turns slow and twangy like a noir western twinge, it can seem out of place but actually can emphasise Nada’s lost, wayward feeling of isolation against the world as every action hero should be of course. The cinematography is fine and simple, the effects are raw and endearing and the script is hilariously quotable and macho flaunting the unrelenting human spirit of our favourite heroes in the face of familiar oblivion. I’m here to chew over the narrative and write a review…and this film was out of narrative a while ago. The plot twists and turns from one strange corner to the even less believable and it’s hard to resist the pure enjoyment of the ride. The idea of one man against the world and sheets terror nowhere to hide is accurately portrayed, in a bizarre situation the fear is still chillingly relatable.
The key part of the narrative is when Nada stumbles across a rebellion and ultimately a simple pair of sunglasses that show the world i literal and figurative shades of black and white while showing the subtext of media around them. Posters and magazines are reduced to simple messages such as ‘consume’ and ‘marry and reproduce’ and some people appear as many matrons life forms. Nada has an amazing sequence of reacting to this in horror, disbelief and wanting to break down laughing, almost like a current day audience watching this. As the life forms see he’s on to them they report his movements and the chase begins.
The startlingly youthful Keith David plays Frank Armitage a man who befriends Nada and together they produce a fantastic display of action busies who can’t decide whether they’re in love or trying to bury the other in their vastly superior masculinity. One of the most famous scenes shows Nada trying to make Frank look through the glasses and leads to one of the most primal and lengthy fight sequences on film. It stops and starts with shuddering brutality and refresh aimlessness as Frank desperately refuses to literally see the truth making a hard to resist point on human nature and our desire to protect our own blissful ignorance. Piper even literally throws in a few wrestling moves for the unashamed rule of cool factor and to suprisingly good effect.
The film fits in every plot point and even twists imaginable like a game of cinematic Tetris, it may be rushed and zany but the point is valid on consumerism and in a time now where we get slapped in the face every day with this point ‘They Live’ is still at the very least a fun jab in the tender ribs of society. It’s has generic set pieces but also unexpected and neat touches like the pirate signal being mouthed by a clueless and dazed street preacher. The end showdown is a brilliant display of our stubbornness as a race and will bring a smile to the grumpiest of faces with its audacious and satisfying climax. The end scene also is brazen and ridiculous like the film in general, a sign of the times this film found itself in but continues to entertain of unabashed merit. Yes this film is largely imperfect as a reflection of the era it was made in and the people it represents but it’s brazen approach helps to highlight the commentary of our advertisement culture.
The Verdict: This movie’s hero is reckless and passionate which is exactly how John Carpenter’s film should be viewed. The great thing about our hero Nada the man with nothing, is that he also has nothing to lose and this adventure of his paid off for us all.