Director John Carpenter helmed a number of fantastic films during the 1980s (most notably The Thing), but They Live (1988) is perhaps his most fun. Blending together social commentary, violence and terrific one-liners that approach Robocop levels of greatness, it's an engaging and accessible romp that's aged quite well during the last 24 years. It doesn't hurt that its star is well-versed in brawling and over-the-top dialogue, but there's more to They Live than its deceptively simple premise of "us vs. them".
John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a drifter who just arrived in Los Angeles, and he's lucky enough to find construction work and shelter at a shantytown with the help of co-worker Frank Armitage (Keith David). As time passes, Nada can't help but notice strange occurrences at a nearby church, and it isn't long before curiosity gets the best of him. Among other things, he discovers a box of sunglasses that allow their wearer to see...well, "the truth": aliens are lurking about and the unwitting lower classes are being controlled by their advertisements, suggestions and news reports. Unfortunately, it's tough to convince fellow citizens that they're being brainwashed by extra-terrestrials, especially when you're perceived as a homeless nut job. Soon enough, however, Nada and company begin to fight back against the repulsive invaders...and things get serious pretty fast, since those in power generally like to stay on top.
It's impossible to recollect They Live without immediately thinking of the film's most memorable moments. The black-and-white reveal of a seemingly harmless billboard. Those lines about cheese dip and bubble gum. The endless back-alley brawl. A heroic third act takeover of the aliens' news station headquarters. Yet lurking under They Live's goofy, over-the-top exterior is a politically subversive story loaded with heart and conviction...and what's more, it plays even better in hindsight. I'm not one to completely get behind rampant paranoia and the belief that we're all being squashed under a giant, subliminal thumb, but there's a truth at the heart of They Live that most working class citizens should be able to rally behind. The fact that it's peppered with great one-liners just makes the bitter pill much easier to swallow.
Nine years have passed since They Live last arrived on DVD (and G. Noel Gross penned a review for it), which served up a decent technical presentation and still no extras. This time, Shout! Factory comes to the rescue with a new Collector's Edition on Blu-Ray and DVD; both include a handful of great extras old and new, but the former also includes a nice 1080p bump and two lossless audio mixes. It's a thoughtful and well-crafted effort that Region 1 fans have been waiting for...and just in time for voting season.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer looks pretty good from start to finish. While They Live definitely doesn't have the sheen of a big budget production (nor should it), this Blu-Ray showcases a solid amount of image detail, a fine layer of film grain, impressive color balance and fairly consistent black levels. A small amount of dirt and scratches can be seen at times (mostly during the black-and-white sequences), while trace amounts of edge enhancement and DNR can also be spotted on rare occasions. Director of photography Gary B. Kibbe offers several personal comments during a newly recorded interview (see "Bonus Features"), though he doesn't talk specifics about the master or transfer. For my money, though, this is a faithful presentation that easily improves upon the 2002 DVD release.
DISCLAIMER: These images were taken from promotional outlets and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
I wasn't expecting a full-fledged DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track (especially since the packaging only lists DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio, also included), but there ya go. Luckily, this is a tasteful remix that amps up the atmosphere without feeling gimmicky: John Carpenter and Alan Howarth's music benefits the most, as the film's sporadic blues cues are punctuated by rear channel activity and plenty of LFE. Dialogue is crisp and easy to understand, channel separation is strong and the gritty urban atmosphere is replicated quite nicely. Purists may want to stick with the original 2.0 track, but I'd imagine that most folks will find the remix more enjoyable. Optional English SDH captions are presented during the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the kick-ass slipcover art for They Live
is a wonderfully over-the-top bit of salesmanship... and you see that awesome sticker? It's probably the only sticker that deserves to stay on any
slipcover. The reversible cover image also flips to reveal the original key art (above right), and a summary of the bonus features and technical specifications has also been printed on both sides. The menus themselves are fairly basic and could've been a bit more creative, but they're perfectly functional and easy to use. Much like other Shout! Factory Blu-Ray releases, this disc is locked for Region "A" playback only.
Shout Factory has served up a nice mix of extras here; they're especially satisfying because both Region 1 DVDs were movie-only discs. Some of these were available on international releases, while others are similar in tone or have been created exclusively for this Collector's Edition. Either way, I'm happy.
Viewers without the benefit of region-free equipment will be happy to know that the wonderful vintage Audio Commentary with director John Carpenter and star Roddy Piper has been included here (and, if my player is correct, it's encoded in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio). Recorded roughly a decade ago for a Region 2 DVD, this laid-back and informative track is highly enjoyable from start to finish. It's similar in tone to the Russell/Carpenter commentary for The Thing in that both participants are obviously having a good time catching up with one another. This is a humble, good-natured and often hilarious session that fans should really appreciate, and I'm thrilled that Shout! Factory was able to secure the rights for it.
Next up are newly-recorded Interviews with key cast and crew members. "Independent Thought" (10:07) features director John Carpenter, who discusses the film's origins, production and lasting impact. It's a nice little chat and doesn't overlap much with most of the extra supplements. "Woman of Mystery" (5:20) sits down with co-star Meg Foster, who shares a few thoughts about the story's themes, her personal on-set experiences and how it affected her career on the whole. "Watch, Look, Listen" (11:14) features director of photography Gary Kibbe, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada and co-composer Alan Howarth, who take turns discussing the film's visual style, stunts and music. Finally, "Man Vs. Aliens" (11:08) sits down with co-star Keith David, who discusses his working relationship with Carpenter (which began in 1982 with The Thing) and several other personal topics. All four are presented in 1080p and look great.
The rest of these supplements are more promotional in nature, including a Vintage EPK (8:02) with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and brief interviews with key cast and crew members. Also related is a raw collection of Never-Before-Seen Footage (2:34) shot by EPK producer Larry Sulkis, which attempts to re-create several fake commercials featured in the movie. We also get a collection of TV Spots (1:55 total), a self-navigating Still Gallery (2:17) and a few Trailers (including They Live). These promotional extras are also presented in 1080p but look much rougher...and in several cases, they appear to be slightly stretched and/or cropped from the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. No subtitles or captions are included.
John Carpenter's They Live is an entertaining cult classic that, unfortunately, hits closer to home today. The subversive political undertones and stripped-down visual style give it a true "blue collar" atmosphere from start to finish, even when it drifts into shoot-'em-up mode. Shout! Factory's terrific Blu-Ray release will undoubtedly thrill die-hard fans and new viewers alike, serving up a solid technical presentation and a handful of enjoyable extras from past and present. Endorsing a frivolous material possession undoubtedly goes against the spirit of They Live, but this one's just too cool to pass up. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.