Review: They Live
Film more than most art forms is more rooted in the time it emerges. Literature and music have enough of an abstract quality that our imaginations can more easily fill in and bridge any gaps between one's modern environment and what may be a more alien setting. There are some films, however, that carry a message that resonates beyond the trappings of its native era. It also helps when they have wrestlers.
A nameless drifter, credited as Nada, (Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into Los Angeles. He manages to find construction work and hopes to build a life. He even manages to make a sort-of friend in the form of fellow construction worker Frank Armitage (Keith David). Unfortunately, stability eludes him when, after a police raid on his home, he finds a curious pair of sunglasses. When worn, they lift the veil of the world he though he lived in to reveal a more actively malevolent force behind the seemingly implicit inequalities and incongruities in the world. Now, on the run and alone, he must figure out how to fight this new enemy.
Let's just get this out of the way. Ostensibly, this is a technically terrible film. You can almost tell the order in which it was filmed by the practical effects quality. The characters are rather one-note, but somehow their reasoning and what informs their decisions is still vague and appears to turn on a dime when it's convenient to move the plot forward. Nada isn't a particularly likable protagonist beyond the "tough guy" fantasy that used to be all the rage and feels quaint and rustic if you grade it on a curve based on it's setting. Still, it's frustrating to see him stumble on problems that could be circumvented with either five seconds of thinking or a sentence delivered in the right way. The dialogue doesn't help much, as it clocks in at about 8/10 on the rhetorical cheese scale.
Thematically, on the other hand, this film tries to carry a lot on Rowdy Roddy's piledriving shoulders. "They" represent the politically and economically elite, which fosters an environment that preoccupies humanity with chasing status and possessions. They're not exactly subtle about this, but it's a powerful theme and the implications are fleshed out just enough to instill a sense of dread and tension that almost cuts through the camp factor. I also can't help but note that given the current state of affairs, it's a bit eerie to watch class warfare erupting into literal warfare.
There are so many things about this film that seem clever and I want to give it credit for, but are probably more incidental than anything. For example, that sunglasses, usually a means of obscuring, are made into a symbol of revelation is probably just convenient to the hero looking cool while wearing them. The bleak black and white view cast by the sunglasses could be reminiscent of the bleak urban cityscape of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but it more likely just helps hide the seams in the makeup effects. If you're the type that enjoys overanalyzing such things, there's definitely some fodder for you here.
They Live has many flaws. The acting is so-so, the plot is straightforward, the action often lacks excitement or tension, and it hits you with its thematic message like a chair to the face. Despite and because of all that, it's fun though, and that counts for a lot.