The scene in which Roddy Piper's character discovers the truth about the alien-dominated world in which he has unknowingly been living is one of the finest moments in science fiction filmmaking. It is reminiscent of Heinlein's more paranoid works, literary worlds where basic freedoms have been stolen. The protagonist actually puts on a pair of glasses that reveal to him a hidden world. The denizens of that world rightly fear discovery, as we hear in the acid voice of an alien who tells the others of her kind: "I've got one who can see!"
Piper plays Nada (not actually named in the film, so far as I can remember), a man driven by economic hardship into homelessness and manual labor. While he makes friends in a sort of homeless commune in L.A., strange things are afoot in the city and he soon becomes involved in an underground war -- the destitute but enlightened humans against the affluent aliens, who have brainwashed the majority of the planet and recruited the upper class to their cause. Early atmosphere and a good solid introduction soon give way to the same-old shoot-and-run, us-versus-them bang-fest.
They Live is the last sample of John Carpenter's early winning streak. It can't quite invoke the creepiness of Halloween or Christine, and it doesn't have nearly the madcap qualities of Big Trouble in Little China, but the film does hit the mark in tone and action often enough to outweigh its flaws. These mostly consist of "it's in the script" moments and story shortcuts which don't really make sense (why the heck would aliens capable of instantaneous space travel rely on a single transmitter in L.A. to guard their secret?). Fortunately, Carpenter manages to pull the rabbit out of the hat and the movie at least has a resolution, if not an entirely satisfactory one.
Carpenter can always be counted on for beautiful cinematography. True to form, They Live was filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreeen, and that aspect ratio is preserved here. Unfortunately for you high-end home theater folks, there is no 16 x 9 enhanced mode for the disc. The picture is of average quality, with some problems in the darker scenes, but most of us watching on normal TVs won't notice many problems. Certainly there were few (if any) speckles on the print, and the sound on the disc is a fairly rich Dolby Digital 2.0.
Stumped again. Not so much as a trailer, and the menus themselves are nothing special. When compared to discs like the Big Trouble in Little China special edition, no-frills discs like these seem really anemic. Ah well, at least the movie is worth owning.
Chris Holland, 1/3/2002