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Feature


They Live opens with unemployed drifter John Nada travelling the economic wasteland of the United States looking for what little work he can find. Nada eventually arrives 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 and the following day he decides to investigate. 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 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 now my fifth review of the film for the site and probably my last unless I eventually buy into 4K (which isn't happening any time soon). Prior to this I reviewed the original UK DVD release, the aborted Optimum Blu-ray release, the Italian BD release and Studiocanal's previous effort. The main difference with this version is that it is sourced from a brand new 4K scan of the negative, supervised by DoP Gary Kibbe.

As with both the Italian and Japanese Blu-rays there’s a healthy dose of natural film grain on show at all times, but it is more refined here than on those releases. 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 doesn't possess the pin-sharp 'wow' factor often associated with today' modern blockbusters, but the results are impressive  given the low-budget nature of the source material. The palette is more natural here than ever before and although it borders on drab at times, it is entirely consistent with the subject matter. Colours are just a tad better saturated than the last Studiocanal release and the magenta haze present on that release has been banished. Although some scenes exhibit modern grading tendencies there's nothing particularly anachronistic on show. Furthermore, there are no major issues with contrast and black levels are also improved over what's come before, with any remaining murkiness inherent to the original photography. Film artefacts are also notable by their absence, which is another improvement over the older home entertainment releases.

The new scan reveals more of the frame than the older discs in my collection, save that is for the opening few minutes that is. Fans may recall that the opening sequence was window-boxed to roughly 2:20:1 on the Italian BD, but cropped slightly to 2.40:1 for the Japanese and UK discs (and the US release, I believe). This release mirrors the latter efforts, although even less of the frame is visible as it's now cropped on the horizontal axis as well as the vertical. It's a strange anomaly and it's the only time that this new disc looks worse than the older ones, but given that we're only talking about a few minutes it's not the end of the world. Even taking this oddity into consideration, this is still easily the best looking version of the film to date (and I can only imagine that the dedicated UltraHD release is further improved).

Audio


The previous Studiocanal release was advertised with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, but actually only included a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track. This release corrects the omission by including both mixes (the stereo by way of LPCM), but to be perfectly honest the discrete track doesn't offer much more than the 2.0 track run through surround processing. Given that the film was theatrically released with a stereo soundtrack one could argue that it's the preferred way to watch the film, but I listened to the 5.1 track out of curiosity.

While still sounding every bit of its thirty years channel separation is surprisingly good, with some neat pans across the front of the sound-stage. A number of scenes are also enhanced by the use of ambient effects in the rear channels, but discrete moments are few and far between (only sirens and helicopter fly-bys linger in the memory). Dialogue is well prioritised in the mix and there's some surprisingly potent bass to be found at various intervals, particularly whenever the deep notes of the low-key, bluesy Carpenter-Howarth score is heard. All things considered this is a solid, functional that serves the film well without the need for flashy remix gimmicks. That both the original and multi-channels remixes are included is also worthy of additional prise.

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
  • Subversion: Exposing John Carpenter’s They Live - A brand new feature-length documentary featuring interviews with Associate producer Sandy King, cinematographer Gary Kibbe, actor Peter Jason, actor Robert Grasmere, composer Alan Howarth, stunt coordinator/Ghoul Jeff Imada, author Jonathan Letham, music historian Daniel Schweiger, Blumhouse editor Rebekah McKendry, and visual effects historian Justin Humphreys
  • Original EPK: The Making of They Live (1988)
  • John Carpenter Profile
  • Meg Foster Profile
  • Roddy Piper Profile
  • Independent Thoughts with John Carpenter
  • Woman of Mystery: Interview with Meg Foster
  • Man vs Aliens: Interview with Keith David
  • Commercials
  • TV Spots
  • Photo Gallery

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 feature-length documentary is a very good watch that offers up plenty of new information about the production from those involved. The making of featurette (also included on the previous release) is of the vintage variety, as are the short profiles of Carpenter, Foster and Piper. The contemporary interviews with Carpenter, Foster and David make for a nice change of pace. It’s nice to hear the actors’ recent thoughts on the film, rather than listening to them extol 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 They Live.

The commercials are a series of fake TV clips made especially for the film, while the TV spots and gallery are pretty self-explanatory.

Overall


I think it's fair to say that this is now the definitive Blu-ray release of They Live. It clearly offers the most audio-visually impressive presentation of one of Carpenter's best features; a film 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. This is perhaps Carpenter's last truly memorable work before his post eighties decline and as such 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.

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