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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.

Video


This is my fourth review of the film for the site and this release shares much in common with the Italian disc I reviewed back in June 2013, as well as the more recent Japanese effort. This is because the transfer used for all three originates from Studiocanal, and they are similar in many respects.

As with both the Italian and Japanese Blu-rays there’s a healthy dose of natural film grain on show at all times. Whatever softness there is represents the original photography, rather than any overt low-pass filtering, which ensures a reasonable level of detail throughout. They Live isn’t some super-sharp modern production, so it’s unrealistic to expect as good as the average blockbuster, but it is impressive enough given the source material. The palette is very natural, bordering on drab at times, but this is tonally consistent with the subject matter and colour purity is a step up from standard-definition (and indeed slightly better than the Italian disc). There are no major issues with contrast, and while black levels aren’t completely inky it’s once again due to the original photography. There are a number of film artefacts visible throughout, but I never found them particularly obtrusive.

The big curiosity with this disc is the aspect ratio. As with previous Studiocanal DVD releases and the Italian Blu-ray, the image starts out window-boxed at a little over 2.40:1 before expanding to the edges of the screen. However, where it differs from the old discs is that rather than adopting a (roughly) 2.20:1 ratio after a few minutes, it actually retains the 2.40:1 ratio. The Japanese Blu-ray also does this, but it is made possible because the top and bottom of the image are cropped when compared to the Italian Blu-ray. Quite why this was done is anyone’s guess, but thankfully the cropping doesn’t remove any terribly essential information (as annoying and unnecessary as it is). The encoding here is better than both the Italian and Japanese discs, so that’s another plus.

Audio


This release was advertised with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, and indeed the J-Card states as much. However, it’s not on the disc. Instead we get DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo in English, French and German. To be perfectly honest I’m not terribly concerned by the lack of 5.1 audio, as the film was theatrically released with a stereo soundtrack and previous 5.1 efforts have been unimpressive to say the least (you could get similar results by using Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6). It’s still a pretty poor show that both the advertising and packaging are wrong though…

Anyway, the Italian BD only included 2.0 Stereo audio, but only of the low-bitrate lossy Dolby Digital variety (224Kbps to be precise). This lossless track doesn’t completely transform the audio experience, but it is marginally better. 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, 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 both 2.0 and 5.1 tracks? Yes, I probably would, but if presented with a choice between the two I’d go for the original mix every time.

Extras


The big problem with the Italian Blu-ray is the lack of bonus material, especially when compared to the US disc. Thankfully Studiocanal appears to have licenced all of the extras from said US disc for its own release! Here’s what’s included:

  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director John Carpenter and Actor Roddy Piper
  • Independent Thoughts: An Interview with Writer/Director John Carpenter
  • Woman of Mystery: An Interview with Actress Meg Foster
  • Watch, Look, Listen: The Sights and Sounds of They Live
  • Man vs. Aliens: An Interview with Actor Keith David
  • The Making of They Live
  • Commercials
  • TV Spots

The outstanding supplemental feature is the commentary track from director Carpenter and star Roddy Piper. While the banter isn’t quite up to the standard of the Carpenter/Russell collaborations, both John and Roddy seem to be having a good time as they recount many stories about the production. Roddy sounds genuinely thankful to John for the opportunity to be part of the film, and Mr. Piper certainly makes for interesting commentator as he tells tales of his many scrapes both in and out of the ring.

The new interviews with Carpenter, Foster and David are interesting and informative. It’s nice to hear the actors’ contemporary appraisals of the film, rather than listening to them extoll its virtues in a vintage featurette. The passage of time often allows for greater objectivity than you would expect from people in the heat of the moment, but all three still have a great appreciation of the film.

The two featurettes – Watch, Look, Listen and The Making of – are contemporary and vintage respectively. The former features interviews with DP Garry Kibbe, stunt co-ordinator Jeff Imada, and composer Alan Howarth, who discuss the sights, sounds, and action of the film. The latter featurette is a more generic behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, covering a variety of aspects of the process.

The commercials are a series of never-before-seen fake TV clips made especially for the film, while the TV spots are pretty self-explanatory. The still gallery and trailers from the US release are not included.

Overall


Although imperfect, for my money this Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook is now the definitive release of They Live. 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. The minor cropping probably won’t be obvious to anyone who hasn’t seen one of the other Blu-ray releases and the inclusion of lossless audio and the bulk of the extras from the US release edge it ahead of the Italian disc. This is perhaps Carpenter's last truly memorable work before his post eighties decline and as such They Live comes highly recommended. Now, where are the updated and improved versions of Escape from New York and The Fog (hell, throw in Prince of Darkness while you’re at it)?

* 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.

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