The premise is simple, but ingenious: a down-on-his-luck construction worker (’80s wrestling icon Roddy Piper) discovers a box of sunglasses that allow him to see alien entities and secret messages beneath the surface of his everyday reality. One of the greatest peculiarities of this John Carpenter oddity is the director’s decision to mirror the film’s plot conceit in his own filmmaking strategy, burying insightful political commentary beneath a surface of relentlessly schlocky action movie indulgences. (This went on the be a crucial influence on The Matrix and arguably every other film made by the Wachowskis.) So unpretentious is this film’s sensibility that some forgot to put on the glasses and see beneath its deceptive surface. Nonetheless, They Live went on to become one of the most beloved cult films of its era.
The ideas in They Live were always central to its appeal, but so was the goofy performance by Piper, his memorable one-liners (“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass—and I’m all out of bubblegum”), and his outrageously long street fight with Keith David. All these years later, the film’s following has evolved into something far more cerebral. Novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote a rambling and insightful book-length study of They Live and Slavoj Zizek recently dissected the fight sequence in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Zizek sees this sequence as a comment on the challenge of piercing deeply ingrained personal ideology with contradictory evidence. While David ultimately opens his eyes, there are so many distractions today that few people achieve any real understanding of the forces that shape their reality. As a result, They Live is even more relevant (and schlocky) in 2012 than it was in 1988, giving its sci-fi imagery a deeper resonance than ever before.
Over the years, They Live has received extraordinarily poor treatment in North America. As Keith David explains in an interview on this disc, the film was unceremoniously pulled from theatres shortly after its release, even though it opened at number one. A bare bones DVD was released in 1998, but fans have been waiting 14 years for something a little more substantial. While a region 2 special edition hit stores in 2002, it took another 10 years for that disc’s lively commentary—featuring Roddy Piper and John Carpenter—to find a home in North America. Fortunately, that isn’t the only extra that Shout! Factory pulled together for their simultaneous DVD and Blu-ray releases of They Live.
Additional extras include interviews with John Carpenter (10 minutes), Meg Foster (5 minutes), and Keith David (11 minutes), as well as an 11-minute featurette (Watch, Look, Listen) starring director of photography Gary B. Kibbe, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, and co-composer Alan Howarth. This disc also includes the film’s original EPK (8 minutes), extra footage shot for TV screens in the film (3 minutes), TV spots, a stills gallery, and the film’s theatrical trailer. Add to that a sharp new transfer and you have an unusually satisfying release for a film that has been denied the deluxe treatment for far too long. The creative team that worked on this disc also has fun with the irony of a consumer product that makes a case for the evils of consumerism, but there’s no need to feel conflicted about purchasing this disc. If nothing else, this is one expense that should help inspire you to dramatically reduce future spending—if you choose to OBEY.