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Old 06-21-2009, 10:36 PM
Scored: 10
Views: 9,932
They Live (R2 PAL)

Reviewer: Dave
Review Date: June 21, 2009

Released by: Kinowelt | Studio Canal
Release date: Unknown
MSRP: Unknown
Region 2, PAL
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes

From Wikipedia.org:
Magnum opus, from the Latin meaning great work,[2] refers to the largest, and perhaps the best, greatest, most popular, or most renowned achievement of an author, artist, or composer.
And therein lies John Carpenter's dilema. There can only be one Magnum opus, and even in all of its simplicity, that will always be Halloween. He will never top it, though it sure didn't stop him from trying, and even coming pretty damn close on several occasions. While some directors - see Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez of Blair Witch fame - prove to be nothing more than one hit wonders, Carpenter suffered no such fate. His talent as a director was no fluke. His career flourished in the 80s, knocking out such classics as The Thing, Escape From New York, Starman, and Christine, amongst others. The late 80s marked a turning point in his career. He closed out the decade with They Live in 1988. It's the release of Memoirs of an Invisible Man in 1992 that marked the beginning of when fan opinion on his work began to split. To be fair, there are many that enjoy Carpenter of the 90s, yet there are an equal number that do not. I tend to be of the latter group myself, longing for the Carpenter of old to return.

Did Carpenter close out the 80s on a high note with They Live? Or should we lump it in with some of his 90s stinkers? Grab the sunglasses and prepare to OBEY as we look to answer that very question.

NOTE: While the DVD being reviewed here is the now OOP German DVD, note that it is identical to the readily available Region 2 UK DVD.

The Story

inline Image John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a man down on his luck. He is a drifter that made his way from Denver, Colorado to Los Angeles, California. Arriving in L.A. with nothing but the shirt and backpack on his back, he stops by the local unemployment office in hopes of landing a job. He's quickly turned away and ends up spending the night on the street. The next day he has a change of fortune and manages to land a job at a local construction site. It is here that Nada meets and befriends fellow construction worker Frank (Keith David). Frank brings Nada to a nearby homeless camp that provides hot food and showers.

inline Image At the homeless camp, Nada's curiosity leads him to a nearby church where members of the homeless camp are conducting secret meetings. He's not certain what the meetings are about, and before he has an opportunity to investigate further, the camp and church are raided by law enforcement. Nada returns to the desolated church the next morning and retrieves a box hidden behind a wall panel. After retreating to a nearby alley, he opens the box and discovers it is full of sunglasses. He takes a pair and stores the rest in a trash can. While wandering about on the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles, Nada puts on the glasses and discovers what they are capable of. With the glasses on, he sees the world in black and white and a barrage of subliminal messages are revealed. Billboard advertisements are transformed into commands such as: OBEY, CONFORM, MARRY AND REPRODUCE. Money is now white sheets of paper with the simple truth of THIS IS YOUR GOD printed on top. What's most shocking is when Nada sees a person that looks human with the glasses off, they are revealed as some sort of alien creature with the glasses on. As he tries to make sense of it, Nada discovers that the alien creatures are everywhere - nearly half of the people in the general public are alien creatures in disguise.

inline Image Nada gets into an altercation with one of the alien creatures in a supermarket and they catch on to his ability to see their true form. He's nearly captured when police officers, who are also aliens, confront him in an alleyway. Nada overpowers them and takes their handguns and the rifle from their cruiser. He enters a bank and begins killing any and all aliens in his sight. The police nearly catch up to him but Nada manages to escape by taking a woman named Holly (Meg Foster) hostage. He forces her to take him back to her apartment. His stay there is short after Holly hits him over the head and knocks him out the window. Nada returns to Frank for help, only to find Frank wants nothing to do with him. After the two fight for a solid ten minutes, Nada finally forces Frank to put the glasses on and see the world for what it truly is. The two are shell shocked and do not know what to do until Gilbert (Peter Jason), a member of the homeless camp and a leader in the resistance, shows up and tells them to attend a secret meeting that night. The two attend and even meet back up with Holly, who had a change of heart - seemingly due to Nada's glasses being left behind. Before long the police show up and kill off most of the feeble resistance. It is now down to Nada and Frank to save humanity from the alien race. The two must infiltrate a local TV station and destroy that satellite that broadcasts the signal masking the aliens' true form. Only then will the aliens' true form be revealed to the public.

inline Image Carpenter managed to close out the 80s at the top of his game with They Live, showing that a big budget isn't needed to create a successful alien invasion movie. Filmed for a modest $4 million, even by 80s standards, Carpenter creates an eerie and bleak look at humanity and just how easily we can be influenced. While I don't necessarily agree with Carpenter's political views, there's some social and political commentary touched upon here, as he himself alludes to in the commentary track. There has always been the belief, to this day, that the gap between the rich and poor is widening. That was certainly the case in the late 80s and Carpenter clearly uses it here as the general theme of the middle class get poorer and the rich get richer as they sellout to the alien race. Does humanity have no limits to the extents we will go for wealth? Probably not. Political views aside, because I don't really see They Live as an attack against Regan politics, it's really the consumer aspect to They Live that intrigued me the most. To this day we hear our political leaders tells us to go out and spend money for the economy. It's our patriotic duty! Have a tax rebate check coming? Don't save it, spend it! Take your loved one out to dinner, take a vacation. We are told to buy new cars because it's good for the economy, or to buy a house we cannot afford because it's good for the economy. What about what's good for us? While the messages may be subliminal in They Live, the reality is they have always been right in front of us, clear as day. Money truly is our god, we are expected to obey, marry and reproduce, and the list goes on. The sad fact is, we're all guilty of such realities.

inline Image Social commentary aside, They Live is a fun little alien invasion flick with all the right ingredients. The story is enjoyable and the effects, while nothing spectacular, are fun. The aliens are a bit goofy looking but it works - enough so that you can enjoy the ride. Performance are solid all around. Former wrestler turned actor Roddy Piper gives an admirable performance as the construction worker turned alien asskicker. His dialogue is great, including the unforgettable line, "I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum!" Has ever an actor seemed more ready to kick alien ass than Roddy Piper? Shotgun in hand, Piper looks as if he were born to play the role. Keith David, having previously worked with Carpenter in The Thing, provides a good contrast to Roddy's Nada character. Both are down on their luck but Nada still believes in America and is ready to fight for it, while Frank is bitter and simply wants to walk the line without making any waves. Both have a good on-screen chemistry that is rare for two male leads. And lets not forget the lovely Meg Foster that doesn't have nearly enough screentime, but gives a great performance as Holly.

inline Image
If the film has a weakness, it's that I was left wanting more, and with questions unanswered. Carpenter teases us with some of the aliens returning to their home world, but that's about all we get. Who are they? Where do they come from? I really wished this was explored more, but with a low budget comes such limitations and unanswered questions. There have been rumors about a remake of They Live. I've always struggled with my feelings on remakes, and firmly believe this is one movie that does not need it. A remake may bring updated effects and maybe even greater detail into the alien race, but there's no doubt the magic that Carpenter and Piper brought to the original will be lost.

While They Live may not be Carpenter's finest, or even his finest alien flick, as that award goes to The Thing, it's certainly classic Carpenter and remains one his top films to this day. Highly recommended.

Image Quality

Kinowelt and Studio Canal do justice to They Live, releasing it in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with 16x9 enhancement. It's a superb transfer overall with only a few noteworthy issues. There is minor grain in some of the nighttime scenes, as well as a few instances of compression artifacts showing up. Both are minimal. Colors are consistently vibrant and fleshtones are nicely balanced. The transfer is consistently sharp and I saw no print blemishes. Considering the age of the film and its low budget nature, I was impressed.


The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 2.0. While there's minimal channel separation, it's a clean track with clear audio throughout. Carpenter's score sounds top notch and he clearly has a talent for matching the score to the theme of the movie. That 'da...da...da...dum' really fits to the depressing nature of Nada's situation, at least in regards to be out of work and down on his luck.

Supplemental Material

inline Image
The US disc is bare bones and the folks overseas put us to shame once again. Kinowelt starts off by having a little fun with the menus and adding some not-so-subliminal messages, all in good They Live form. First up on the supplement side is a commentary track with director John Carpenter and star Roddy Piper. It's a great track and the two are consistently talking, sharing counless stories and thoughts on both the production and of their personal experiences. Piper is clearly in awe of Carpenter, thanking him several times for the opportunity and of his great direction. Fans will really enjoy it.

inline Imageinline Imageinline Imageinline Image

Next is an 8-minute featurette featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. It's short but I always enjoy seeing cast and crew talk about the movie, at least for a movie I enjoy. Sadly that's it for supplements - no trailer or photo gallery - but it still beats the bare bones US DVD. There are a few easter eggs that can be found, which will give you video profiles for Carpenter, Piper, and Foster, plus a snapshot of Carpenter and Piper on the day they recorded the commentary track.

Final Thoughts

They Live proves alien invasion can be done on low budget, and who better to provide it than the master of low budget, John Carpenter? His films became hit or miss starting in the 90s, but They Live let Carpenter close out the 80s in top form. Most may be satisfied with the US disc, as it too is widescreen and 16x9 enhanced, but the exclusion of the commentary track from the US disc will push most fans towards the import. Regardless of which disc you chose, They Live is highly recommended as an addition to your DVD library. Now bring on the blu-ray!


Movie - B+

Image Quality - B+

Sound - B+

Supplements - B

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour 29 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English, German, Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0
  • English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish subtitles
  • Commentary By Director John Carpenter & Actor Roddy Piper
  • Featurette



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Old 06-21-2009, 11:42 PM
God, I havent seen this movie in years!!!
tHaT dAmN dOcToR iS tRyInG tO sTaRvE mE tO dEaTh!
Old 06-22-2009, 01:11 AM
F*ckin Great Film!
I love the subtext about society being so blind to things going on around us in our daily lives, and how much we trust in our surroundings.

Would love a nice special edition of this one myself, Anyways I'm here to Kick ass and Chew Bubble gum and I'm All Outta Bubble Gum!
Old 06-22-2009, 12:37 PM
Such a fun flick, although it shows the first signs of Carpenter's cynicism and paranoia that has pretty much taken over nowadays. I hear he just hangs out in his house in LA, smoking weed and being reclusive.
Old 07-03-2009, 10:25 AM
Great movie! I might still pick this up just for the extras. HDnet movies is also playing this right now in OAR.
Old 09-19-2009, 07:21 AM
Aspect Ratio
Are you sure about that Aspect Ratio? DVDCompare.net has it down with this note: "During the opening credits, the aspect ratio is approx. 2.40:1. After that, it changes to approx. 2.10:1.".

The UK release is also the same. http://dorian.gray.free.fr/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=66

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