The present’s so grim, we oughta wear shades! They Live! (1988) Review

They Live

One question springs immediately to mind when watching John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action B-movie “They Live!”: why aren’t they remaking this right now!? Don’t get me wrong, Carpenter’s original is a great movie in its own right, but the themes of the story – its very core conceit – is so on point now, nearly thirty years later, that it almost pushes the film from satire to documentary.

When unemployed drifter John Nada (Roddy Piper) encounters an underground movement which is swiftly crushed by local authorities, all he is left with is a box of sunglasses. But these are no ordinary shades, revealing to Nada a sinister, hidden world controlled by a ruling elite who keep the masses mentally and physically sedated while they enjoy the finest luxuries and indulgences. Determined to destroy the status quo, Nada resolves to ‘chew bubblegum and kick ass’ only to find out he’s all out of gum.

Nada brings us another classic Carpenter hero in the swaggering mould of Snake Plissken or Jack Burton and while Piper brings a stiff and goofy charm to the role, his Rowdy wrestling persona just isn’t a match for the screen presence of Kurt Russell. His delivery of the iconic – and awesome – bubblegum/ ass line carries with it an air of ‘we did seventeen takes and that was the best one’ despite the fact he came up with it himself. To paraphrase Jack Burton, ‘it’s all in the delivery’ and Piper’s delivery has all the unfulfilled disappointment of a ‘we called but you were out’ card. Piper’s wrestling background at least stands him in good stead during the film’s standout fight scene between Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David) which starts out spectacularly, carries on to amusing and unfortunately drags out to an interminable 5-plus minutes of trading blows, grunting and demands to ‘put on the glasses’. A fight scene that long in any film is an indulgence, but in an already short 90 minute movie it’s a waste of precious time.

It’s only due to Carpenter’s sly wit and his flair for storytelling that the film works as well as it does. The script is a bit of a cut ‘n’ shunt affair, shortcutting various plot threads and only ever examining the implications and possibilities inherent in the film’s premise at a frustratingly superficial level.

Hampered by performances which border on wooden – especially from the unfeasibly blue-eyed Meg Foster and a budget which provided special effects which barely even match TV’s “V”, the film just can’t make the most of the narrative goldmine it sits atop of, especially at the too quick hour and a half runtime.

“They Live!” is a fun slice of eighties hokum, elevated by Carpenter’s style and a cult classic in its own right but it’s absolutely ripe for a remake. Its story of the 1% and the opiation of the masses is scandalously overdue for a reimagining and you can only wonder at what we could have if this story was put in the hands of David Fincher, or Christopher Nolan or even Edgar Wright. “They Live!” is the story of our present reality and, as entertaining as the original is, it needs to be told again.