26th Oct2018

‘They Live: Collector’s Edition’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Peter Jason, Meg Foster, George ‘Buck’ Flower | Written and Directed by John Carpenter

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They Live marked the end of an amazing run for John Carpenter, before his creative decline (in terms of filmmaking, at least) in the 1990s and beyond. Well, it had to end somewhere – and what a brilliantly bold way to bow out.

As a teenager, John Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) ran away from home, from a violent father. He’s been a drifter ever since. He shows up in L.A. with a set of tools and sleeping bag, hoping just to make it to his next hot meal. At work he meets Frank (Keith David), who hasn’t seen his family in six months. Frank brings him to a settlers’ site, where the impoverished underclass eke a living. Overlooking the site is a church, with some very strange comings and goings. John checks it out, and discovers it’s the ad-hoc headquarters for a resistance movement.

They know a secret: aliens walk amongst us! Using a transmitter on the roof of a TV network, these occupiers are able to suppress humans’ ability to recognise them – instead, they look just like your average banker or politician. The aliens’ ultimate plan is to harvest the resources of planet Earth and then move on once it’s stripped. The resistance are poised to reveal the aliens’ plan – and here’s the hook. The church is manufacturing sunglasses, which allow the wearer to see the aliens for what they really are. (This was Carpenter’s idea – it wasn’t in the original short story, Ray Nelson’s “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”.) Stripped of the seductive colours of their illusion, the glasses show a world in monochrome, where fancy billboards are replaced with the words “Obey” and “Consume”, and sexy magazine ads simply read, “Marry and reproduce”. And the aliens themselves can be seen for what they are: weird, bug-eyed bipeds, with the ability to transport instantly via special watches.

The aliens are keeping humanity in a state of blissful ignorance – except the bliss is only for a select elite. Can John break his vow of patience and take the fight to the enemy? And can he convince Frank to help him?

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The opening of the film is noticeably slow, and John is unreadable. This is deliberate – John is a sleepwalker like everyone else. As reality dawns, John’s shift from stoic workhorse to energised vigilante is rather sudden. By this point in his career, Piper already had a couple of leading roles under his belt (including the inestimable Hell Comes to Frogtown), but he’s a limited performer and he struggles to sell the initial shock and the ensuing transition. Keith David, however, is great as always. Frank is the working fella who’s just trying to make his way, not wishing to rock the boat of social order. He is the obedient man. He knows something is wrong with the world but he also knows it’s dangerous to challenge it. He’s the one we relate to. His desperation to stay on the straight and narrow leads to an infamous alleyway fight scene, where Rowdy gets to show off his body-slamming skills.

That fight – which takes up practically a tenth of the entire film – does have a narrative purpose too. This is precisely what the rich and powerful want: for the poor to fight amongst themselves. They are “feeding on our cold hearts,” as Frank puts it. He says what John is thinking: as long as we’re competing with each other, and showing “benign indifference” to those in power, we lose and they win.

As allegories go, Carpenter’s is very broad. The faces of bank notes, when seen through the sunglasses, read, “This is your god.” But remember, Carpenter was coming off a decade of Reaganomics decadence. He’d seen himself picking up studio gigs (i.e. Christine) in order to keep working. “We all sell out every day,” says one human who’s working with the aliens, “so we might as well be on the winning team.” It’s a grotesque argument.

Such concerns have ongoing modern relevance, although there are a couple of scenes that feel uncomfortable today. For example, the concept of “getting woke” in 2018 means quite the opposite of what it meant back then, now being synonymous with “anti-SJW” outragers. And there’s the “bubblegum” scene, where John walks into a bank and starts mowing down the 1%, which seems excessive and shocking now, given the mass shootings of recent years.

Carpenter is at his angriest and most purposeful here, and it shows in his direction. The purging of the ghetto is a brilliantly staged setpiece. The police start with a right to left movement, pushing against the tide. But gradually and craftily Carpenter then has them moving from left to right, resetting control, enforcing the new normal. Elsewhere there are some subtle stylistic tics, which perhaps only Carpenter would have considered, like the way he cuts to the muzzle flash during shootouts. Small things that make all the difference.

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Also, it must be said that this is an ‘80s culture treasure trove. It’s not just the groovy blues-synth music, but there are also some fabulously cheesy TV ads, promising ‘90s fashion today (!). Tiring of the excesses of an era he had virtually defined, with They Live Carpenter crafted a fable as damning as anything in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. Aside from a brief echo of his former greatness in 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, I would argue that They Live is the last Carpenter film that really felt like a Carpenter film. And it ends with a literal middle finger to the camera. It’s as if he’s saying, I’m done; from now on, it’s cruise control. And with a legacy like his, that’s okay.

This 4 disc limited Collector’s Edition of John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic They Live has been stunningly restored in 4K – the 2018 restoration was made using the original camera negative which was scanned at 4K resolution in 16bit, applying 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.

This release is beautifully packaged with a stylish, newly commissioned illustration on the cover. 4 discs: 1 UHD, 1 Blu-ray feature, 1 Blu-ray extra features disc and the original soundtrack on CD. It also contains 5 artcards, a newly illustrated theatrical poster and booklet containing behind the scenes stills, articles and an essay from celebrated film journalist Kim Newman.

Extras:

  • 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

They Live is out on Studiocanal remastered Blu-ray and 4K UHD from 29th October 2018.

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