Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason and Raymond St Jacques
|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
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.
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.
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.