They Live (IT - BD RB/C)
Chris examines the European Blu-ray release of the John Carpenter feature...
They Live opens with unemployed drifter John Nada travelling an economically decimated United States looking for what little work he can find. Nada eventually finds himself in L.A. where he manages to get casual work on a construction site, and it is here that he befriends Frank (Keith David, The Thing), who offers to show him to a place where he can get a hot meal and a shower.
Frank takes John to a camp for the homeless, where people are cramped together in makeshift shacks struggling to survive on what little they have. As the evening draws in Nada notices some strange goings on at the community church across the street. The following day he decides to investigate, and inside the church he discovers a secret meeting between some of the camp's inhabitants, a crude laboratory packed with boxes of sunglasses, and a rudimentary transmitter.
That night the camp is attacked by swarms of armed police who disperse the residents, beating many of them to within an inch of their lives. Nada escapes the raid, and the following day returns to the church. Whilst inside he takes a pair of the sunglasses he had seen the previous day and, thinking nothing of it, puts them on before he steps outside. This is when John Nada’s world starts to fall apart. The glasses alter his vision in ways that allow him to see the world as it really it. Posters, magazines, signs, and even money all carry hidden, subliminal messages, and aliens are living amongst the people of Earth!
It seems that only Nada can see the aliens, who turn decidedly nasty after they discover that their cover has been blown. After a few cool one-liners, a messy incident with a shotgun, and a kidnapping, Nada finds himself on the run with no one to turn to but Frank. After convincing Frank of the alien menace (in one of the most protracted fight sequences ever committed to film), both he and Nada join up with the underground resistance to try and shut down the alien invasion once and for all.
I've previously reviewed two different versions of They Live for DVDActive - Momentum's DVD and the unreleased Optimum Blu-ray - and I've also seen Shout! Factory's recent Blu-ray offering, so please believe me when I say that this looks better than all of them. Now you'd expect it to look better than the DVD, and of course the Optimum Blu-ray was unreleased for a reason (chiefly because it was appalling), but Shout!'s Blu-ray has received a fair amount of praise from certain quarters. However, I cannot for the life of me understand the positive reaction to the US disc, because it suffers from numerous problems. Firstly, it has been noise reduced, resulting in some clumpy grain. To compensate for the loss of detail that accompanies DNR the image has been sharpened, which has introduced edge halos and given the whole thing a harsh, digital appearance. The contrast/colours have also been tweaked to lend the image the sort of 'pop' that some distributors seem intent on forcing upon us, regardless of a film's age and with scant regard for the original look. (I can't blame Shout! though, as Universal supplied the master - no surprise there if you've seen some of their other catalogue titles.)
This Italian Blu-ray suffers from none of these problems. You'll find a healthy dose of natural film grain on show at all times, and the inherent softness of some shots is infinitely preferable to the edge enhancement and general artificial sharpening exhibited by the Shout! disc. In any case detail is at least as good as the US disc and actually quite impressive for the most part, particularly when compared to standard-definition releases. Some might find the palette a little drab, but to my eyes it looks extremely natural and very faithful to previous incarnations of the film on DVD. It looks like a film from 1988, rather than a film from 1988 altered to appear like it was filmed in 2013. The one curiosity with this 1080/24p AVC encoded transfer is the aspect ratio, which like numerous DVD releases before it starts off window-boxed at a little over 2.40:1 before expanding to the edges of the screen at a little over 2.20:1 after a few minutes. What this means is that the Italian BD exhibits a little bit more information at the top and bottom of the frame for the first three minutes when compared to the Shout! BD, after which a sliver of picture is cropped from the left and right of the frame. To be perfectly honest I doubt most people will even notice, but it's worth mentioning all the same. The only other particularly negative thing I have to say is that there are a number of film artefacts visible throughout, but I never found them particularly distracting and in any case the Shout! disc also has its fair share. For my money this is currently the best visual presentation of They Live available; it's simple as that.
Here's where things get interesting. The primary audio track for this release is an Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 affair (with a 768kbps Core), which is pretty much useless for anyone who wants to listen to the film in its original language. Thankfully the disc also offers up a pair of Dolby Digital 2.0 (224kbps) tracks in both Italian and English. Now this might seem like a major blow against the Italian BD, but things aren't quite as bad as they seem. I've previously listened to the 5.1 tracks on both the UK and US Blu-rays and to be perfectly honest they sound like up-mixed 2.0 tracks (and the UK track is incorrectly pitched to boot). Sure there is surround activity, but it's not really anything that couldn't be achieved by running a stereo track through Pro Logic II/DTS Neo:6 processing. The US disc does offer a theoretical advantage over the Italian disc because both its 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are lossless, but I'm firmly in the camp that believes lossless audio is only as good as your set-up and far less apparent to the casual viewer than the difference between SD and HD video.
With that in mind the English 2.0 track is perfectly serviceable. While it sounds every bit of its twenty-five years - with the sort of highly compressed dynamic range and lack of fidelity often associated with low-budget 80s flicks - channel separation is surprisingly good, with some neat pans across the front of the soundstage. Dialogue is well positioned in the mix and there's some surprisingly potent bass to be found at various intervals. The Carpenter/Howarth score features prominently and is prioritised effectively, never overwhelming the other elements. It's true that the ambiance generated by the distribution of the effects and score to the rear channels is lacking - and I must concede that point to the US disc - but when all is said and done the film's original sound mix was stereo so this is an authentic track in that regard. Would I have preferred that the disc had 5.1 and 2.0 Master audio tracks? Yes, I probably would, but on balance I still think the superior video mitigates any shortcomings in the audio department.
Nothing, or perhaps more aptly, nada. Well that's not strictly true, because as long as you can read Italian there's a sixteen-page booklet included in the package. I can't, so I refer you to my first sentence.
Now I realise that there will be people who own the Shout! disc that look at the images on this page, read about the lack of lossless audio and extras and wonder what the hell I'm smoking, but I can live with that. If you own the Shout! disc and you're happy with it, who am I to tell you you're wrong? However, the primary reason for reviewing this Italian disc was to bring it to the attention of people who are unsatisfied with the US effort. If you're one of those people I strongly urge you to check this disc out. It offers an authentic presentation of one of Carpenter's best features; one that's just as relevant today as it was in Reagan-era America circa 1988. Sure it comes across a little heavy-handed, but wrapping the anti-consumerist message up in an absurd B-movie ensured that the film transcended its genre and endured for years to come. As perhaps Carpenter's last truly memorable work before his post eighties decline They Live comes highly recommended.
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Release Date: 2nd February 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Italian, Dolby Digital 2.0 Italian, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards
Genre: Drama and Sci-Fi
Length: 94 minutes
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