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Entries in They Live [1988] (1)

Friday
May202011

They Live (1988)

He Can't See without His Glasses!

Yesterday, a guy in line at the cafeteria overheard me talking about They Live with my friend, Bill.  He cut in with an enthusiastic, "Yeah! I love that movie!  It's so campy!"

That really bothered me, but I couldn't articulate why.  So, this morning, I consulted my indispensable writing companion, dictionary.com, and found the following definition of the word "camp":

"Something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental."

They Live is none of those things, but I can understand why someone might apply that easy, awful word to this film.  First, it was made in the 1980s, which for most people under the age of twenty-five indicates an inherent lack of seriousness.  The era of action stars, big hair and practical special effects offered nothing compared to the timeless, quality art of, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World--which was itself born of 80s and 90s nostalgia (but it had the snarky wherewithal to acknowledge that anything pre-1999 sucked).

The second problem is that the movie stars pro-wrestling superstar "Rowdy" Roddy Piper as a nomadic construction worker fighting aliens.  Sounds awful, doesn't it?  Sounds like the perfect drinking-game movie, right?

Sorry to burst anyone's bubble, but They Live is a serious, paranoid action thriller.  It's fun, but only occasionally in ways that might be considered cornball.  Carpenter turned Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" into a screenplay that posits a world view one might consider either conspiratorial or right on the mark.  Like Starship Troopers, this movie predicted events and cultural memes that have come to pass in recent years--minus the alien invasion stuff (I think).

But I've gotten way ahead of myself.  Piper plays George Nada, a drifter who joins a homeless colony on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  He finds day-labor work at a construction site, where he meets Frank (Keith David)--a bitter, struggling man who sees that the surrounding world of privilege is squeezing the middle class to create more unfortunate bums like him and his friends.  On his second night in town, George discovers a group of men conspiring inside a local church, which has been rigged with speakers that project pre-recorded choir music to the outside world.  He also finds a makeshift lab full of sunglasses lenses, and a strange graffiti tag on the back wall that reads, "They Live.  We Sleep."

The following night, an army of police raids the church and bulldozes the entire homeless village.  Cops in riot gear beat everyone they come across, and George barely escapes with his life.  He returns to the church in the morning to find it completely cleaned out--save for a box of sunglasses that was stashed in a secret compartment.  He pockets one of the pairs and walks into town, which turns out to be a very different Los Angeles than the one he'd known before.

The glasses cast everything in black-and-white and reveal a hidden world of messages and grotesque aliens living among us.  Every billboard, magazine ad, and storefront sign is actually a front for propagandist slogans like, "Obey", "Watch T.V.", and "Marry and Reproduce."  As seen through the glasses, hundreds of ordinary citizens become bug-eyed, half-peeled skeletons.  George learns that the alien invaders use a massive television signal to dull regular people's senses, preventing them from seeing the messages or their sinister neighbors' true faces.

George freaks out and goes on a shooting rampage.  He steals weapons from a pair of alien cops and targets any non-human he sees.  This is more difficult than it sounds, however, as each invader communicates George's whereabouts via wristwatches that also act as teleportation devices.  Soon, he's a wanted man, and he enlists Frank's reluctant help in locating the signal to destroy it and wake people up.

They Live works on every level.  As action movies go, it doesn't get much better than watching Piper and David go head to head for what seems like a ten-minute alley brawl.  These guys look like they're really beating the crap out of each other: When George pounds Frank's head into the pavement, we see the peeling pink flesh on the back of his head.  The fight goes on and on, but Carpenter--with, I imagine, Piper's experience as a showman--knows when to pull back, to let the audience believe either man has won, before launching into another round of fisticuffs and pipe-hitting.

This is also a nifty little piece of sci-fi.  The aliens' methods of control are revealed to be grander and grander, and we're left with the open-ended question of what they're really after.  Theories are offered, but unlike the similarly themed TV miniseries V, the invaders don't want us for food.  It's unclear if humans are just amusements or worker bees, and I love that there's not a climactic scene involving an alien overlord who explains everything away.  In fact, the end of They Live is pretty dark--hopeful, but dark in the way the Carpenter's best works tend to be.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it's more relevant today than it was in 1988.  There's been talk of a remake, but if a filmmaker really wants to drive the point home, he simply needs to adapt Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs's scot-free manipulation of world markets and CG a fright mask over Lloyd Blankfein's face.  The idea of a culture wasting away at the teat of thought-dulling media signals, hyper-consumerism and entertainment that pushes setting aside one's personal convictions for the promise of protection and wealth were, I'm sure, cute, far-fetched notions at the end of the "Me Decade".  But in 2011 these freakish things are as commonplace as nipple piercings.

Carpenter's messenger, his wake-up call to all of us, is a blank-faced, gun-toting pro-wrestler who spouts lines about kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.  To you, that may sound campy; but is it any less ridiculous than reality television or presidential campaign posters designed by an artist who made "Obey" an innocuous, pop-cultural meme?