This is #18 on a top 100 list, it’s a John Carpenter film, all the words below, but the reason I saw this movie is because this is where the following line comes from: “I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I am all out of bubblegum.”
Complement that line with the image of Roddy “Rowdy” Piper toting a shotgun, and standing in a bank, or just on the street, with those damn sunglasses, and you have a recipe for positively built entertainment. Somewhere in here is a what-if, but it isn’t “What if the 1% was an alien colonization of the Earth,” it’s “What if this guy found out that previous thing, and because of that, reacted by saying anything and doing anything, going on a rampage because nothing matters?”
There’s an anarchic electricity to the film, the kind of gentle disestablishment that’s like Fight Club fresh from adolescence. It may have some trappings of a Postal or a Grand Theft Auto, but sometimes a breach-anger fantasy is a fun thing to look at.
If you authorize killing by dehumanizing an enemy, killing becomes gleeful. They’re telling us obey! Look! Put on the glasses! This isn’t something I can abide anymore, but in They Live, it’s played with such Sam Raimi silliness, no matter how gross the violence in the movie might be, the only real statement effected is a declaration of approach: This will be a very surface, cinematic exploration of class warfare.
The depiction of the shantytown is apparently very realistic in imagery and culture, and the film is highly sympathetic without ever dipping into sentimentality. Oddly enough, the feel of They Live is somewhat alien, a little bit distant — it just starts, and it goes, and it ends. We barely learn these people’s names, and there just isn’t the same amount of humanity as in Big Trouble or The Thing, or John Carpenter’s other classics of this calibur.
This is more Hard-Boiled than The Killer (to use a reference relevant to this list) — amorphous and memorable more for its moments than its plot. Not to say that the plot is forgettable, but Christ. The fight scene. The grocery store. Come on.
I love Keith David. I don’t know which came first — Halo 2, Mass Effect, They Live, The Thing, or Pitch Black, but in each of these great things, he’s the best character. Look at this video, right now. And here, he’s a major player in one of John Carpenter’s great scenes, an extended, cartoon fist-fight that takes turns in seriousness and goofiness. It’s a legendary thing that makes this movie required watching for anyone with an interest in anything. If there is anything you enjoy in the world, you’ll love this.
And John Carpenter always leaves you on a fun note. Escape from LA, Snake destroys the world. The Thing, that notorious ambiguity. They Live? “What’s the matter, baby?”