Release Date(s)1988 (January 19, 2021)
Studio(s)Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions, Universal (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This 4K Ultra HD review is by Bill Hunt, but portions of the film commentary are by Adam Jahnke from his review of the 2012 Blu-ray.]
Based loosely upon Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning, John Carpenter’s They Live posits a world not unlike our own, where the divide between the haves and have-nots has become insurmountable. In this case, the haves are a race of pop-eyed aliens controlling mankind through subliminal messages in advertising and disposable pop culture. John Nada (wrestler/actor Roddy Piper) is an L.A. area drifter and part-time construction worker, who stumbles upon an underground resistance that’s created special sunglasses that allow humans to see the aliens and subliminals for what they really are. Naturally, the discovery brings out the rowdy in Mr. Piper.
Some critics and fans have described They Live as “ahead of its time.” Actually, the movie is very much a product of its own time, a pointed commentary on the yuppie consumerism of the Reagan era. But if its themes seem just as relevant today as they did in 1988, that reflects more on the world itself than the movie. Social commentary aside, They Live remains one of Carpenter’s most enjoyable films with endlessly quotable dialogue and some wonderfully over-the-top action. The late Roddy Piper acquits himself extremely well here as a likable, charismatic everyman. Keith David (Pitch Black) also turns in a solid performance as Frank Armitage, a fellow laborer who reluctantly follows Frank into the resistance. Gary B. Kibbe’s efficient cinematography and an original synth-blues score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth round out a satisfying viewing experience.
They Live was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Panavision Panaflex cameras and high speed anamorphic lenses. Scream Factory’s new Ultra HD release presents the film in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, sourced from the same 4K scan of the original camera negative as the 2018 Studio Canal UHD release. The restoration was supervised, graded for high dynamic range, and approved by Kibbe (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available). The image quality is outstanding for a film of this type and vintage. Fine detail and texturing are exceptional, save for the occasional shot that’s optically soft as photographed. There’s a light-moderate level of grain visible throughout the presentation—as there should be—but it’s stable and organic. The HDR grade is subtle, but adds pleasing depth to the shadows and more natural brilliance to the highlights. The color palette is accurate and more richly saturated than ever before—visible in grass, blue jeans, yellow hard hats, and the like. Skin tones especially benefit. The Dolby Vision may have a very slight edge in saturation and dimensionality over the HDR10 presentation, but it’s essentially a wash. The encoding is excellent too, with little in the way of artifacting or macro-blocking visible (the video bitrate seems to average around 70-80 Mbps throughout). Honestly, it’s hard to imagine the film looking better than it does here.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is included in a new English Dolby Atmos mix. It’s not bombastic, but it maintains the film’s original sonic character while adding a bit more in the way of lift and immersion. The Carpenter/Howarth score sounds fantastic here, with rich full tones and lovely low end heft. Dialogue is clear and clean, with the surround and height channels used for nearly constant and delicately layered atmospheric cues—city sounds, street noise, etc. The overheads are particularly apparent whenever police helicopters move in (as well as the aliens’ spy drones), and there’s some nice vertical play in the film’s climactic shootouts too. The Atmos matches the visual quality well—it’s a fine mix. The previous English 5.1 and 2.0 mixes are also included in DTS-HD Master Audio format, as are optional English SDH subtitles.
Scream Factory’s new UHD package includes the film on 4K as well as Blu-ray (which is also mastered from the new 4K scan and includes the new Atmos mix). The 4K disc offers the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Roddy Piper
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:59)
- Teaser Trailer (HD – :54)
The commentary was recorded in the early 2000s for a European DVD release (you’ll hear Carpenter refer to French opening credits) and it’s a real hoot, but the teaser trailer appears to be new to this 4K disc. The Blu-ray Disc in the package also includes the commentary and the theatrical trailer (but not the teaser) and adds the following:
- Independent Thoughts with John Carpenter (HD – 10:07)
- Woman of Mystery with Meg Foster (HD – 5:20)
- Watch, Look, Listen: The Sights & Sounds of They Live (HD – 11:14)
- Man vs. Aliens with Keith David (HD – 11:12)
- Original EPK: The Making of They Live (Upsampled SD – 8:02)
- Never-Before-Seen Footage from the Commercials Created for the Film (Upsampled SD – 2:34)
- TV Spots (Upsampled SD – 4 spots – 1:55 in all)
- Still Gallery (HD – 2:17)
- Halloween 2 Trailer (HD – 2:18)
- Halloween 3 Trailer (HD – 2:44)
The commentary is funny, informative and relaxed—definitely one of the better tracks Carpenter has recorded over the years. Note that the Watch, Look, Listen piece includes interviews with Kibbe, Howarth, and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. Not included are some features that were created exclusively for the 2018 Studio Canal 4K release, but all of the Scream Factory extras carry over here. All in all, this is a great batch of both new and legacy content with which fans of the film are already well familiar.
Be aware that Scream Factory also has versions of this 4K Collector’s Edition available for purchase with an exclusive Sacred Bones 7” vinyl LP of Carpenter’s music, as well as a poster, and an 8” NECA action figure of Frank (approved by Keith David). You can find those on their website.
Whichever version you choose, They Live is a great little action thriller and a cult classic that holds up surprisingly well today. And Scream Factory’s 4K UHD release delivers the film in superb A/V quality. It’s highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt with Adam Jahnke