Written and directed by John Carpenter, 1988’s They Live begins when a drifter named John Nada (Roddy Piper) wanders into the big city of Los Angeles hoping to find some work in construction. He meets a guy named Frank (Keith David) and follows him to a ‘tent city.’ When the cops show up to raid the camp he wanders over to a nearby church. Once there, he finds a box of sunglasses that, once he puts them on, allows him to see things in a very different way. All of the billboards that once contained colorful advertisements are now simply slogans like ‘OBEY.’ On top of that, some of the citizens he thought were average, every day human beings now appear as skeletal looking aliens.
When John realizes that we’ve actually been silently taken over by aliens, he figures it’s time to set things right. He figures he’s going to need Frank’s help but he can’t convince him to put on the glasses, leading to a massive back alley brawl between the two men (and one of the finest fight scenes in the history of motion pictures). Eventually Frank comes around and he and John realize that it’s going to be up to them, with some help from a small resistance movement, to expose the aliens for what they are.
Made for roughly four million dollars, They Live (as well as Prince Of Darkness, made shortly before) was a return to the director’s low budget roots. After hitting the big leagues with more mainstream movies like Starman, Carpenter wanted to break away from the short leash of big a big studio production and do something more fulfilling. They Live has the director’s stamp all over it and it feels more like his seventies films than his eighties output – and as most fans of his work will tell you, that’s a good thing.
Though the film takes a bit of time to hit its stride as an action/sci-fi extravaganza, Piper and David have got enough screen presence that the buildup is, if a bit slow, never boring. We get to know enough about these two men to invest a bit in the outcome and there’s enough twisted, black humor injected into the movie that it comes together very well. The film is loaded with political jabs, a response to Reagan-era politics and the direction that the country was going in at the time it was made. This doesn’t date the film, however, if anything these themes seem just as important now as they did then.
The film has got its share of famous (and admittedly very goofy) one-liners and a couple of great action scenes (seriously, that back alley fight is just amazing) as well as some decent supporting efforts from the likes of Meg Foster and George ‘Buck’ Flower. Like a lot of Carpenter’s films, this one bounces between genres but never to its detriment. Ultimately this one is still a whole lot of fun and on top of that it’s smart enough to periodically make you think.
Shout! Factory brings They Live to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 and, for the most part, looking really good. Detail is generally pretty strong though it should be noted that some shots tend to look softer than others, so things aren’t always completely consistent. Overall though, detail and texture are much improved over standard definition offerings and color reproduction looks nice and natural. There’s good depth to the picture and black levels are pretty solid, though some minor edge enhancement can be spotted here and there and some of the close up shots of Piper’s face look to have had some noise reduction and filtering applied, though for the most part skin looks lifelike and natural. Fans should be pleased with the results of this transfer. It may be a bit more processed looking than some will want it to be but it’s a very nice upgrade over the previous DVD.
English audio options are provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio. Both tracks sound quite good, though it should be noted that the 5.1 mix doesn’t really try to update the film (nor should it be expected to) and as such, there isn’t a ton of surround activity. With that said, you’ll notice the rears helping out here and there in a few scenes, particularly those with a lot of action in them. Bass response is strong, almost a little too strong in a few spots, but the score sounds good and is spread around quite effectively. Levels are well balanced and dialogue is easy enough to understand and follow with no hiss or distortion related problems to note.
The best extra on the disc is the commentary track that comes courtesy of director John Carpenter and leading man Roddy Piper. Although there are a few short stretches where the pair simply describes what’s happening on the screen, the bulk of the track is fast paced, interesting and sometimes quite funny. Carpenter talks about where the ideas came from for the story, what he was trying to get across with the movie, and technical details like effects and budgetary issues while Piper spends a good bit of time describing his experiences in front of the camera and talking about his character. If you’re a fan of the film, give this track a listen – you will not be disappointed.
From there we move on to a selection of featurettes, the first of which is a ten minute interview with John Carpenter entitled Independent Thoughts. Though this covers some of the same ground as the commentary it’s worth checking out simply because he gets a bit more political here, discussing his thoughts on society and authority’s place in it and how that lead towards writing the treatment and how in turn he got studio backing for it. A five and a half minute interview with Meg Foster entitled Woman Of Mystery lets the actress wax nostalgic about her time spent on this film, what it was like working with Piper, David and Carpenter and how she feels about the movie. David is also interviewed here for eleven minutes in a featurette called Man Vs. Aliens. Here he talks about his character, working with Carpenter first on The Thing and then later on They Live, and a fair bit more. Watch, Look, Listen: The Sights and Sounds of They Live is an eleven minute piece that interviews DP Gary B. Kibbe, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, and composer Alan Howarth about their respective jobs on the film. As such, we learn about why certain scenes look the way they do, how the stunts were choreographed and what Howarth’s intentions were with the score.
Rounding out the extras are an eight minute behind the scenes reel, two and a half minutes of ‘TV Clips’ created for the movie and never used, two minutes worth of TV spots, a pretty extensive still gallery, a theatrical trailer for the movie, theatrical trailers for a few other Scream Factory releases, animated menus and chapter selection. The Blu-ray disc is housed inside a standard Blu-ray case and comes with reversible cover art and a slipcase cover.
The Final Word:
They Live holds up incredibly well compared to most other science fiction and action movies from the eighties. It remains as intelligent and subversive as ever, its message not in the least bit faded, dated or out of touch. Piper and David are fantastic in the lead roles and Carpenter’s direction is as tight as his script is compelling, entertaining and legitimately thought provoking. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray offers up the film in very nice shape and with some extras that are completely worthwhile. A pretty excellent release, all in all.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!