They Live

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 02/07/13 21:49:21

"John Carpenter's Second-Worst Film"
1 stars (Sucks)

Opened to decent box-office business, but poor word-of-mouth spread and killed it like the bubomic plague, and deservedly so.

John Carpenter's science-fiction action tale They Live starts out acceptably enough, with ex-wrestler/sometimes-actor Roddy Piper starring as John Nada, a homeless drifter from Denver who arrives in Los Angeles in search of work, only to find himself in the midst of (I think) an extraterrestrial conspiracy involving creatures in human disguise whose dastardly plan involves (I think) encouraging greed and consumerism in the human race (at least in the United States, for we're never given any information as to how vast this conspiracy is, but it's fairly obvious Carpenter, who wrote the terrible screenplay under the pseudonym George Armitage, has set his darkly satirical sights on us easily-manipulated, hopelessly-materialistic Americans). Nada gets himself a job at a construction site and starts staying at an outside camp for the homeless; but on his first night he notices curious comings and goings from the church across the street. He relays this to co-worker Frank (Keith David), who's also staying at the camp, and who advises him to mind his business and concentrate on work and lifting himself out of poverty. Curious as a cat, Nada snoops around the church and discovers a reel-to-reel machine playing an endless loop of choir hymns he's been hearing coming from the place -- it's a guise to hide that this is an underground operation resistance movement to destroy the conspiracy, whose otherworldly creatures can only be seen by humans by wearing a special type of black sunglasses, revealing what seem to be human faces as dark skeletal skulls, and billboard advertisements and magazine covers with slogans such as "Consume" and "Don't Think" and the like. When the creatures recognize that a human wearing the sunglasses is onto them, they speak into some high-tech wristwatch and alert others, including their members who've infiltrated the police force; soon Nada, after shooting down some of these imitation cops, is a wanted man, and rather than fleeing the city he stubbornly opts to stay, eventually convincing Frank of the threat and enlisting him in his crusade to do away with the conspiracy, which has taken over a local television station and broadcasts subliminal messages to brainwash us poor citizens into questioning nothing, accepting everything. In other words, the movie is a cautionary fable out to "tell us a few things" about ourselves, our society -- how innately and quintessentially corruptible we all are when promised non-stressful living and easy-to-attain wealth; and it's so heavy-handedly obvious it's just about impossible to take seriously, much less even remotely enjoy.

Coming off the abysmal Prince of Darkness from the year before and the abrasive Big Trouble in Little China the year before that, Carpenter is trying for something eclectic, that's for sure, with a mix of action and humor, but They Live is direly devoid of a consistent tone, and Carpenter's handling of his own material is imprecise and indifferent. I think the movie's a disaster -- an embarrassingly sophomoric exercise that's half-thought-out and enervating in its execution; nowhere in it is there the indication that intelligence has been bestowed upon its shoddy story premise, or that Carpenter had any artistic stake in this jejune "vision" that's about as sharp and biting as a high-school stoner's anti-establishment ranting at two in the morning. As the co-writer and director of the fine Halloween, the excellent Escape From New York, the outstanding The Thing, Carpenter is too talented to rest on his laurels by relying on a half-realized story premise to carry the day without proper shaping and development -- the movie runs out of workable material by about the thirty-minute mark, and all we can do is watch an uninteresting hero who we have no emotional stake in lumbering about in a creaky plot that has all the narrative drive of a drunken snail. (Piper, to his credit, is reasonably charismatic and appealing, but his inexperience as an actor dooms him: he simply can't make more of a role than what's been written, thus the insufficient writing cruelly leaves him vulnerable.) It's quite something about They Live in that right when it should be kicking into third gear and carrying us along on a wave of excitement to something resembling an impressive conclusion, it remains unaccountably slack, so even when Carpenter trots out some action sequences (the shootouts are all poorly staged, and a tiresome five-minute fight with Nada and Frank trading body blows in an alley is easily the movie's nadir) the story still feels like it's in a state of inertia. And not helping is the droning, monotonous harmonica-sounding score Carpenter's cooked up -- even when Nada finds himself trying to make sense of things in the nightmarish world he's in the midst of, there's that damn neurasthenic music keeping the movie a good two steps back, as if it has molasses in its veins. Even Carpenter's knack for canny widescreen composition deserts him here -- there isn't a single expressive image. "Don't conform!" and "Don't sell out!" are what Carpenter's forever didactically dishing out here, and after a while the stunning one-dimensionality repels, and not because these are trivial messages but because they've been rendered so trivially by a filmmaker who comes off as the poor-man's Bertrand Russell.

Carpenter's worst? "The Ward."

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