Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason and Raymond St Jacques
Back in the eighties, when I found the money to go out and discover a wider variety of movies than were broadcast on the four TV channels we had in England at the time, John Carpenter was surely the biggest name in genre cinema. He seemed to be most highly regarded for two hits, Halloween and Escape from New York, both of which did very well at the box office and strongly resonated down the years. Yet today, it's his less heralded features that stand up best, especially Big Trouble in Little China, which lost money at the box office, and They Live, which made a profit but hardly a spectacular one. If I had to pick a third place, it would be Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter's update to Rio Bravo, as Halloween feels simplistic now and Escape from New York wears some of its more convenient scenes on its sleeve. By comparison, They Live feels more and more relevant with each year that passes. It's horrifying to realise that it often feels like we're living in this world that Carpenter created in 1988. How do we shut down the source?
|This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.|
At the time, They Live was quintessentially about the eighties, perhaps why many critics didn't see much value in its message; they needed to skip forward a few decades to see how it would all evolve. In truth, Carpenter was railing against a number of things, one reason why They Live doesn't feel like a one note message, but at its heart, it's anti-consumerism. He told Starlog that he'd started to watch TV again and that he realised that everything was designed to sell us something, but he also noticed the reflection of this in the thriving yuppie movement, which tied success specifically to money, and the Reaganomics of the time. Carpenter naturally polarised this in his script to become a 'them and us' scenario, but as he phrased 'them' as alien free enterprisers and 'us' as the human race, he tapped into a set of wider truths about modern America that have become more obvious with each year that passes, a recognition that the class system of the British is present in the United States too, merely manifested in a different form.
Today, yuppies and Reaganomics have gone by the wayside, but
I first saw They Live on British TV as a presentation of Moviedrome, in which Alex Cox introduced me to a stunning range of films and, in many ways, placed me on the road to Apocalypse Later. I remember that Cox highlighted that the primary character is homeless, hardly a common scenario for a lead in an action movie. He's also never named, his credited name of Nada meaning 'nothing' in Spanish', and the product of a broken home, from which he ran away at the age of thirteen. The movie's title is sourced from graffiti within it, initially underneath a bridge, and it opens with Nada walking past it, literally travelling from the other side of the tracks in search of work; he ends up in a shanty town for the homeless quite a distance away. However, he's not phrased as a victim. While the government's job centres have nothing for him, he's an able bodied man with his own tools and he finds work on a construction site himself. 'I believe in America,' he tells a bitter co-worker. 'Everybody's got their own hard times these days.'
His optimism isn't reflected in anything else we see or hear, as hammered home in the early scenes. The lady he meets at the job centre doesn't care and doesn't want to listen; the loudspeakers explain that the food stamp programme has been suspended; a man in a wheelchair rolls past him, shaking his head. Out in the streets, a preacher asks, 'Why do we worship greed?' before a cop shows up to shut off his words. Frank, that bitter co-worker, hasn't seen his wife and kids in six months; they're back home in Detroit, but he had to leave because the steel mills closed down. Nada came from Denver where 'things just seemed to dry up.' In other words, it's not just here, it's everywhere. The only way out is through television, where you can watch and dream, even if it's in a shop window. It doesn't address the problems of society, but it serves as a temporary escape from them. On television, you'll never, never grow old and you'll never die. No wonder people stop trying, even in the shanty town; it's much easier to escape than to try.
But breaking into that signal comes an old bearded hacker, ironically because he's using 'their' medium, to rail at the complacence of the people. He isn't received well, partially because his message is nowhere near commercial (how about zingers like, 'We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep' or 'their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness') and partially because the interference literally gives them headaches. The truth hurts, right? His more effective words are very familiar, but here's where the setup ends and our story really begins. Clearly something is going on at the African Methodist Episcopal Free Church over the road from the homeless town and our hero is an inquisitive soul. He wanders in to find that it's a front for a group of scientists who discovered the truth behind all the proselytising and want to wake up the populace. Talking at them doesn't help, but what has a chance are the sunglasses they're manufacturing that show things as they really are.
Given that They Live is now over a quarter of a century old, that the point at which Nada puts on a pair of these sunglasses is only half an hour into the movie and that what he sees has passed into pop culture to the degree that street artist Shepard Fairey's Obey campaign was deliberately inspired by it and arguably his iconic Obama Hope poster was too, it seems fair to talk about it. When wearing these sunglasses, the world of colour that we know is transformed into black and white, partly because it works metaphorically and partly because Ted Turner was prominently colorising classic movies at the time and it seemed like a good way to make him out to be 'a monster from outer space'. Images and words vanish too, replaced by simple subliminal slogans on every advertising hoarding, every page of every magazine, every sign in a window. Many contain only a single word: 'Obey', 'Consume' or 'Conform', while others are more complex, such as 'Do Not Question Authority' or 'No Independent Thought'. Paper money reads 'This is Your God'.
What's more, while some people look identical, others are utterly different, like a mass of bruises without skin. That's because they're the aliens who own us and the message becomes crystal clear. The first alien we see is an affluent white businessman but the first human is a black newspaper seller; in this world, we call them 'sir'. Masters are alien, but their servants are human. Aliens get promoted, while humans don't. Some cops are human but most aren't, something that echoes today in the maxim that good cops protect bad cops. Stumbling around town in a daze as he can see the truth, Nada decides that he'll do something about it and the rest of the story falls easily into place, the social comment stronger early on but not lost as the film turns into an action piece. The most telling moments arrive late, such as the transformation of Buck Flower's character, a lazy nobody from the shanty town now gussied up in a suit and bow tie as the epitome of the nouveau riche. 'We all sell out every day,' he says. 'Might as well be on the winning team.'
For a movie that carries a whopper of a message, much better constructed than the hacker's diatribe that is primarily received as 'just that idiot licking his nuts again,' it's a highly enjoyable piece. The source was a story called Eight O'Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson, published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963 and it's surprisingly close to Carpenter's adaptation to the big screen. George Nada wakes up to a similar revelation after being hypnotised on stage, finding that our world is ruled by Fascinators who breed us for food but control us through subliminals. It ends with an extra twist that isn't in the film, surprisingly given that it's even shorter than this review, under two thousand words, but Carpenter does a magnificent job of turning them into 94 minutes of visualisation and social analogy, not least through how he phrased the characters. Nada is far from the only unusual primary character and, even a quarter of a century on, this stands surprisingly alone in its varied heroes, right down to the heavily tattooed biker with a long beard.
Playing the homeless, nameless hero is Roddy Piper, who is a better actor today than he was in 1988 but is perfectly cast nonetheless as the everyman; as Carpenter told Starlog: 'Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him.' At the time he was best known for his career as a WWF wrestler, but he was starting to dabble in movies, first being noticed in this and the much lower budget Hell Comes to Frogtown in 1988. Playing opposite the white guy is a black guy, Keith David, clearly a much better actor, who had impressed Carpenter during the making of The Thing. He wrote the part of Frank for him, as he 'wouldn't be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own.' Just as prominent in a smaller role as a blind, black street preacher is Raymond St Jacques, who had broken down a boundary on his own, becoming in 1965 the first black actor to become a regular on a western series on television, as cattle drover Simon Blake on Rawhide. It's appropriate that he was a noted civil rights activist in real life. He sells his role.
Buck Flower is perfectly cast as the drifter who finds his way up the food chain by selling out. It's notable that unlike most of the homeless folk in the shanty town, he never seems to do anything except sit back and watch television. His creaky voice is perfect for the role, as are his unkempt looks. As Gilbert, whose part in running the shanty town is mostly a front for his more subversive operations in the underground, Peter Jason is strong too, even if he's one of those actors who we remember visually without ever letting his name sink into our skulls. He was also in Carpenter's previous picture, Prince of Darkness, another of his underrated gems. And that leaves Meg Foster, whose unique blue eyes have never been more overt. She has an odd role, in that she doesn't show up until almost halfway through the film and does so as a hostage. She plays Holly Thompson as cool, composed and conciliatory. 'You have two guns,' she tells Nada. 'You're not sorry. You're in charge.' Yet the moment she can act, she does, quickly and powerfully.
There's so much to discuss in They Live that a review can easily run away and become a book of its own, something impossible to even conceive with most eighties action movies, which are often looked back at as guilty pleasures, the nostalgia overriding the cheese. That cheese isn't entirely absent though, as we can't forget the film's most famous line and most famous scene, both of which are remembered far more than the substance and depth that pervades They Live. The line, of course, is Nada's oft quoted, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum.' Piper apparently ad libbed the line, but he certainly didn't ad lib the long alley fight he worked with Keith David, all to get him to put on sunglasses. Carpenter had them watch The Quiet Man, with John Wayne battling Victor McLaglen, then they built up the choreography over weeks. It's arguable that fight credibility is lost whenever a suplex is added into it, but if it's bringing new people to They Live after 26 years, it's well worth it.