The Ultimate Consumer Nightmare
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer Simon Kennedy reviews the restored They Live from director John Carpenter in time for Halloween…
Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Rowdy Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
From John Carpenter, the director of The Thing and The Fog. Starring ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, the great wrestler from the heyday of WWF (now WWE), who passed away sadly in 2015. This was to be an astounding film. In an age of social media, where consumerism is prevalent across the world, They Live might feel anachronistic. In a time where India and China’s new middle classes new-found status of credibility is valued in monetary terms,They Live might seem prescient. In the world where that new designer bag or fashion-forward dress that a celebrity wears on the red carpet, snapped on a social media account to flaunt material wealth,They Live might even seem like a documentary. All these things are valid enough but for me the film is urgent. All this money seemingly buys acceptance,They Live in 4K, wants to eradicate this logic. A direct assault on the ignorance of wealth generation and adulation, it has much to admire.
Drifter Nada (Piper) stumbles across the US. He has gone from town to town in search of a new job and a better life. On arriving in LA, he is meet with work on a building site and a new friend called Frank Armitage (Keith David). Frank finds him a home, hot meal and a local church with an outreach programme. This might improve his prospects. When the police raid the church, beat those inside and demolish homes of the residents of the shanty town, Nada escapes with a box of sunglasses. On putting on a pair, his life is turned upside down. Secret images are printed in the adverting boards, indoctrination symbols disguised with pretty beaches and faces. These motifs dictate ‘OBEY’, ‘STAY ASLEEP’ and ‘MONEY IS YOUR GOD’. Leading Nada to fight an alien invasion, evil mind control machines and maybe saving human kind as we know it.
John Carpenter infers that his version of this story is driven by Reagan-era economic realities. It’s a criticism of the ill effects of Monetarism and its drawing out of money from the system and into the hands of the few over the many. Money was a god to those on Wall Street. It could create overnight economic prosperity, due in part to asset stripping and social engineering. However, on the other side of the coin were millions of Americans and other people destined for penury and despair. The actual story came from the 1950s – 1960s paranoia of alien invasions and was inspired by films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (perversely an inspiration also for Carpenter.) Eight O’Clock in the Morning was a short story written by Ray Nelson in 1963, it has a lot in common with the 1980s. Dealing with social upheaval, with civil rights, post 1950s economic downturn and of course, Communism off the shores of Florida. However what Carpenter does with the source material explains why it has longevity and why it casts a long shadow.
‘I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum and I am all outta gum…’ The film fit into cult cinema’s well-worn model. I am not sure how knowingly (the feature Subversion: Exposing John Carpenter’s They Live suggests it was a core facet), but it has sardonic satirical comedy, mixed with potent social commentary at its core. Humour is a big thing with cult cinema. It was writ large in this piece and is certainly pointedly calling out those who were simply unprepared to accept their responsibilities. The other aspect deserving of attention is the John Carpenter and Roddy Piper relationship. Even in the commentary (which has been seen in the DVD releases of the film) you sense that there is a chemistry between the two men. They are friendly, one is the architect and the other is the canvas, on which the drawing will be made. You feel that Carpenter chose Piper because he was an everyman. A man of the people who wanted to be just on top of things. He also chose him because he was the archetypical hero of the era. A burly man with muscles and brawn. However he is also intelligent enough to understand what is going on. Relying on brains and brawn in equal measure.
So Studio Canal have upscaled They Live to 4K. It looks like a cross between a hyper real video game and a very pretty set of stills. The Black and White sequences have benefited most from the 4K. The DVD had some shine and a tendency to lose definition, here you see depth and can decipher detail. It also improves those night time scenes. Helicopter lights and building noise is lost, replaced by clear and crisp visuals. Some scenes however have suffered. The fight scene seemed a little washed out and colour seemed to be whitened. The ending suffers a little however because the optical effects have been hyper realised.
The extras on the disc have been mostly seen before. The best of the new stuff is the Subversion: Exposing John Carpenter’sThey Live. This is possibly the definitive documentary on the film. You see the usual suspects bar Piper. They tell you stuff you have heard. However it probes. Its asking a few interesting questions of the film and the release. Does it making money mean that the capitalists win? Do they actually live and if so have we fallen victim to their game? Outside of that, I wouldn’t spend my money just yet.
(1 UHD, 1 Blu-ray feature, 1 Blu-ray extras, 1 CD Soundtrack)
48 page book
Subversion: Exposing John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE – A brand retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and featuring interviews with Associate producer Sandy King, cinematographer Gary Kibbe, actor Peter Jason, actor Robert Grasmere, composer Alan Howarth, stunt coordinator/Ghoul Jeff Imada, author Jonathan Letham, music historian Daniel Schweiger, Blumhouse editor Rebekah McKendry, and visual effects historian Justin Humphreys.
Original EPK: The Making of They Live (1988) John Carpenter profile – vintage profile of the director
Meg Foster profile – vintage profile of the actress
Roddy Piper profile – vintage profile of the actor
Audio Commentary with John Carpenter & Roddy Piper Independent Thoughts with John Carpenter – a 2012 interview with director John Carpenter
Woman of Mystery: Interview with Meg Foster – a 2012 interview with actress Meg Foster
Man vs Aliens: Interview with Keith David – a 2012 interview with actor Keith David
Fake commercials in the film 2.34 mins TV spots Photo gallery
The 2018 restoration of They Live was made using the original camera negative which was scanned at 4K resolution in 16bit and we applied the ACES workflow to the restoration process which resulted in the creation of a 4K DCP, UHD version and a new HD version which were produced with the same high technological standards as today’s biggest international film releases.
The restoration and new UHD version was colour graded and approved in Los Angeles by the Cinematographer, Gary B. Kibbe (ASC).
- Dolby Vision
- Region: 2.35:1
- Audio: 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio