John Carpenter’s seminal political satire about class warfare and the subliminal messages in media is an incredibly intelligent big dumb action movie. That is to say, it’s structured as a big dumb action movie, but with an intelligent message. But it’s not all high and mighty satire, it’s also big, dumb, and entertaining.
Roddy “Rowdy” Piper (may he rest in peace) is Nada, a working class drifter just looking to earn an honest living. But there are strange forces at work, a mysterious group of rebels who hijack television broadcasts and preach of a hidden elite controlling the world and exploiting the 99%. Just a day after he moves into a shantytown soup kitchen across from a church secretly hiding the rebels, the rebels are apprehended by a large police force and the shantytown destroyed. Nada discovers a box of sunglasses in the church. Trying them on, he is shocked to see the world in black and white – not only that, but the glasses decipher hidden messages in advertising and media, and reveal broadcasting towers keeping the lower classes unaware of Them. They are everywhere. They control everything. Celebrities, corporate CEOs, higher-ups, world leaders, They are all of this. The elite are not human, but aliens who have taken over the world without anyone noticing. What is there left for Nada to do but to Rambo up and take back the world?
The setup is brilliant, the payoff equally so. The not-so-subtle attack on Reaganomics and the ruling class is fantastic, and the aliens themselves top-notch. Though Carpenter was undoubtedly limited by the $4 million budget (a mere fraction of what it cost to make films like Starman and Big Trouble in Little China), he uses what he has effectively. The alien design is simplistic, yet effective. The locations are simplistic, yet effective. The special effects are simplistic (even a little corny), but effective. The fight scenes are phenomenal, including one of the greatest hand-to-hand combat sequences of all time, and shoot-out scenes where we’re essentially cheering for a mass shooter.
Roddy Piper’s acting range is limited, however, he had the same skill level of every other action star of the era. I’d argue he’s better, just because of how ridiculous he is.
But Nada’s not alone. After much convincing (including the aforementioned greatest hand-to-hand fight scene of all time) he manages to get Keith David (who previously starred as Childs in The Thing) on his side, and they work together to take back the world for the lower classes. Keith David is also great here, as always, and his and Roddy’s dynamic is perfection.
Is the film silly? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. It zips right along, wittily and entertainingly, with hardly a dull moment once it gets going. A smart political satire dressed up as a fun genre film, They Live earns an A+.
They Live is quite possibly the greatest political satire of all time. Highly recommended.
Be back next time. Maybe some more John Carpenter, maybe not. Until then, bye!