Bring Your Own Bubblegum. THEY LIVE Provides Plenty of Kick-Ass.

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If the idea that the country’s wealthy and powerful were either in league with an alien race that promised them untold riches in exchange for their cooperation and were themselves the aliens seemed absurd back in 1988, today it no longer seems that unusual. They Live holds a mirror up to the world we know and presents a disturbing alternative. Now it has arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory’s horror and sci-fi imprint Scream Factory. Does its message still hold true after nearly a quarter-century?

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Welcome to Ronald Reagan’s America, circa 1988. The American Dream is alive and well but available to those that can afford it. The country’s elite sit on the thrones of power and manipulate the media while the poor and disenfranchised struggle to survive each day. One day a stranger arrives in town on a train. His name is John Nada (Roddy Piper) and he still believes in America as the land of opportunity. Nada wants only to do an honest day’s work and make ends meet until he gets his shot at the brass ring. Eventually he befriends Frank (Keith David), another poor slob like himself trying to keep from being swallowed up by the world while supporting a family back East. Frank invites Nada to his home away from home, a camp for the city’s homeless located across the street from a church and manned by friendly volunteer workers led by Gilbert (Peter Jason). Then one night Nada notices some strange occurrences. The church has choir practice in the middle of the night. Police helicopters are circling the camp and the cops arrive in force to raid the camp. Nada and a few others manage to escape without getting their skulls bashed in.

Walking around the city Nada impulsively tries on a pair of sunglasses he pilfered from the church. For reasons unbeknownst to him the glasses reveal subliminal messages embedded in billboards, street signs, magazines, and even money, messages like “Marry and Reproduce”, “Do Not Question Authority”, and “Sleep”. Worse than that the glasses reveal to Nada that most of the people he sees walking the streets are revealing hideous-looking humanoid aliens. After creating several disturbances and uttering some hilarious quotable dialogue (something about bubble gum), Nada finds himself on the run from the police, the military, the Cub Scouts of America, and any other fascist organization under the extraterrestrials’ control. He reluctantly convinces Frank and television executive Holly (Meg Foster) to join him and others in battling the aliens and taking back the planet. Is it too late to warn the rest of the world, or have the aliens already won?

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Working with a low budget and unlimited creative freedom, John Carpenter took Ray Nelson‘s little known short story “Eight O’ Clock in the Morning” and expanded into an exciting and though-provoking melding of science fiction, two-fisted action, and prescient social satire. America’s elite maintain their stranglehold on the impoverished populace by bombarding them with subliminal propaganda and using brutal tactics to keep potential troublemakers in line. Sounds like the world we’ve lived in for centuries, except this movie puts forth the intriguing notion that the people in control are disguised aliens who want to raid the planet’s natural resources and keep the people fighting among themselves so they will never rise up.

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The movie addresses issues of race and class warfare, privatization of the government, and the influence of the media on a weak-minded human race. They Live was doomed to fail to find its audience at first for such is the fate of movies that are ahead of their time. Take for example the scene where the homeless camp is raided by the police. Whenever I watch that particular scene I’m reminded of the police and military patrolling the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, throwing people from their homes and treating American citizens like criminals simply because they’re black and poor. The aliens that are using the planet for its natural resources are no different than the Bush administration invading Middle Eastern countries a decade ago to raid their oil supply and fulfill neoconservative plans for dominance of that region, plans which went deservedly unfulfilled.

One thing that will certainly never change is our society’s obsession with achieving unattainable standards of perfection in their personal appearance in the hope that it will somehow give them the illusion of an improved life. Carpenter gives the story credibility by hiring recognizable character actors to portray his main characters. His shrewdest casting decision was tapping former WWF wrestler and acting newcomer “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to play his reluctant hero John Nada. Piper brings to his character an average Joe likability and a physicality that comes in handy during the action scenes. He’s also quietly effective in several dramatic scenes, the best being when he talks about a dark moment from his childhood, and convincingly unnerved when he first puts on the sunglasses. Piper makes a excellent acting debut.

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For the role of Frank, Nada’s only real friend in a world gone mad, Carpenter called on the acting services of Keith David, who had previously worked for the director on The Thing. David does a great job at portraying Frank as an honest, hard-working man bitter at having to leave his family to find work because the opportunities have long dried up in his hometown. Despite his anger Frank isn’t as eager as Nada to take on the invading forces that have taken over the planet but he makes a convincing transition once the sunglasses wake him up. Keith David is a valuable asset to any film he’s in and his performance in They Live is perfect evidence of that.

Meg Foster has limited screen time to bring her character Holly Thompson to life but she pulls it off with her hypnotic eyes and soothing voice. She always plays it cool and controlled especially when Nada takes her hostage. You have to wonder if this has happened to her before. Holly turns out to be an integral character in the story and without Foster’s ace performance she would have gotten lost in the fray.

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Long-time character actor Peter Jason, a favorite of directors like Howard Hawks and Walter Hill, acquits himself well as the mysterious Gilbert. George “Buck” Flower, an actor who had worked for Carpenter previously in Escape from New York, plays a homeless man who willing buys into the aliens’ plot for a chance at a better life. The late Raymond St. Jacques adds another vivid character to his over 80 film and television roles playing the blind street preacher whose loss of sight allows to see better than those with their eyesight.

Credit must be given to the make-up artists responsible for the look of the aliens. Even with limited funds they still manage to give They Live‘s extraterrestrial yuppie villains utterly skin-crawling visages complete with ghoulishly pale skin and frightening bug eyes. Seeing these hideous creatures walking around in human form is the stuff of nightmares.

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They Live may have been shoved aside when first released because it dared to give people a little intelligence and timely social and political commentary with their action entertainment, but in the years since it has aged well and gained a deserved cult following through video and DVD sales and frequent cable showings. This is one of John Carpenter’s best and most underrated films, as vital a film of its time and ours as Robocop. More than that, They Live was very much to the Reagan years what the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was to the red-baiting 1950’s. Twenty-five years after its release on many levels Carpenter’s movie still gives us a pertinent reason to be scared, and still makes me wary of sunglasses.

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