by Mel Valentin
John Carpenter’s 1988 film, "They Live," is one part political/social satire, one part black comedy, and one part science fiction/horror. After "Big Trouble in Little China," Carpenter's action-comedy-fantasy mash-up failed commercially (it's since become a cult favorite), Carpenter returned to low-budget filmmaking, directing "Prince of Darkness" in 1987 and "They Live" a year later. Unusual for a filmmaker associated with the horror genre, Carpenter developed “They Live” as an explicit critique of Reagan-era America: an America distinguished by rampant consumerism, corporate capitalism, anti-environmental, and anti-egalitarian economic policies that consistently favored the wealthy over the middle class and the poor.They Live never identifies the hero-protagonist by name, except in the end credits as “Nada” (Spanish for “nothing”). Played by ex-wrestler-turned-actor Roddy Piper, Nada is an unemployed drifter who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. The local unemployment office offers him no hope. Wandering into a job site, he manages, however, to obtain work. Frank (Keith David, The Thing, Requiem for a Dream), a construction worker, brings Nada to Justiceville, a shantytown located on an abandoned lot near a church. A nearby church that helps to feed and clothe the homeless attracts Nada’s attention. Like everything else in They Live, the church isn’t what it seems. Nada discovers a perception altering or rather, a reality revealing, pair of sunglasses.
"Better than your average sci-fi/horror/political satire..."
Nada’s newly awakened species consciousness converts him to the cause of liberation from alien oppression. With the sunglasses, Nada can see the aliens in their true form. The sunglasses allow him to see the subliminal messages embedded in billboards, books, and magazines. It doesn’t take long before the aliens realize that Nada’s eccentric, agitated behavior has a cause (i.e., he can see them for what they really are), making him a target. Desperate to escape, Nada encounters the obligatory romantic interest, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), a television station employee. Nada’s awakening then leads to a six-minute-long fight with a skeptical Frank, and eventually, an attempt to publicly unmask the aliens.
Rather than confront Reaganism head on, Carpenter cleverly, if unsubtly, opted to make ghoulish, bug-eyed aliens our overlords, hiding in plain sight. Some humans have sold out our species for wealth and power. Thanks to advanced, perception-distorting technology, they look human. The same technology bombards the airwaves with subliminal advertising, with simple, coded messages (e.g., “Obey,” “Listen to Authority,” Consume,” “Marry and Reproduce,” “This [money] is your God”). The transmissions make everyone but the aliens willing and submissive subjects to the social order. Some humans, discovering the truth, give in their baser impulses, and openly collaborate with their oppressors.
In addition to Carpenter’s social and political commentary, They Live is best known for the seemingly interminable fight between Nada and Frank which took three weeks to rehearse. Piper and David use traditional and non-traditional wrestling moves to get the upper hand on their opponent: chokeholds, suplexes, head butts, eye gouging, and back breakers (on unforgiving asphalt no less). And that's just in the first two minutes of the fight. It lasts close to six minutes of screen time.
Another major plus: the quotable dialogue, most notably Piper's ad lib when he enters a bank filled with aliens,” I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." Still others will look at the underwritten romantic subplot, compare it to the scenes between Nada and Frank and conclude that their relationship is far more engaging and open to interpretation (others, of course, can take that point further, beginning with the post-fight scene that has Nada and Frank sharing a room in a flophouse, with Nada bathing his bruised upper body in an open sink while Frank looks on).Unfortunately, Carpenter’s screenplay and direction leave a great deal to be desired. “They Live,” starts slowly (Nada doesn’t find and put on the sunglasses until almost the halfway point in the film), only picking up pace in the second half. That’s excusable, but the contrived, convenient plot turns, and haphazardly staged action scenes (e.g., aliens have an unfortunate habit of running headlong into gunfire) aren’t. To be fair, a limited budget probably forced Carpenter to cut back on what he intended to do with “They Live.” Political and social subtext aside, the end result is a seriously flawed, sporadically engaging effort.
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originally posted: 09/11/05 17:21:43