FILM REVIEW: They Live (1988)

They Live (USA, 1988)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower

In a bid to escape being typecast as a horror director, John Carpenter sought to broaden his palette after Christine and experimented with a number of different genres. But while Starman still holds up as a moving romantic drama, Big Trouble in Little China resembles a dumb mix of Indiana Jones and Year of the Dragon. After the subsequent failure of Prince of Darkness, Carpenter needed something special to revive his career.They Live is Carpenter’s best film since The Thing, and is to date the last great film of his career. It takes the alien invasion premise of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, mixes it with some clever insights on American politics and mass media, and then turns the heat up by injecting the plot with on-screen violence reminiscent of Robocop. Although uneven in places, it is an entertaining piece of filmmaking from one of modern horror’s most important directors.

Despite having elements of both science fiction and action movies, They Live doesn’t start out feeling like either of these. The first half hour plays out more like a Western: it’s quiet, slow-moving and focussed around the everyday goings-on of small town folk, or in this case the homeless. The residents of the makeshift camp speak their mind and go about their business like they have been doing it their whole lives, much like the inhabitants of a small town in the cattle kingdom. Our protagonist has an air of the Man with No Name about him: he doesn’t talk much, and seems physically out of place.In this first half hour, we focus on the characters in the camp and gain an understanding of their social status. Most of them are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types who won’t take state handouts as a matter of principle. Carpenter’s score contains bluesy elements to reinforce the trustworthy, blue-collar nature of these scenes, whether in the harmonica Roddy Piper plays at night or the double bass riff that follows him around. We empathise with them to such an extent that the goings-on at the church seem incredibly suspicious; when the police turn up and burn both church and camp, we feel sad but accept that something had to be done.

In doing all this, the film cleverly manages to pull the wool over our eyes. When we first see the blind preacher pontificating in the street, we pay no attention to him; we’ve heard it all before, and it seems either off-putting or irrelevant. The same is true for the TV broadcasts; we’re not interested in listening to some intellectual “lick his nuts”. We identify so clearly with the homeless characters that we become suspicious of anyone who seems vaguely intellectual. Hence when the sunglasses go on and the screen shifts to black-and-white, it comes as a very real shock.Carpenter’s decision to shoot ‘reality’ in black-and-white is an interesting one. On an historical level, it makes everything look like a 1950s B-movie, complete with aliens who look every bit like humans in unconvincing rubber masks. One of the underground broadcasts described how greenhouse gases have risen since 1958, which would imply the aliens have been among us for a generation. Although it may seem odd that an invasion force would look so old hat, it does make logical sense: if you conquer races by being invisible, you don’t have to worry about updating your look to keep with the times.

Carpenter uses this visual technique to expose the shallow nature of consumerism and make a point about subliminal advertising. The world in colour is an ordinary 1980s American city; there is nothing stylised about the dialogue its citizens speak, and the advertising style is familiar. We are so used to advertising being a part of our lives that we don’t stop to give any of the billboards a second glance. When Piper puts the glasses on, he is literally seeing the world in black-and-white; all the flashy marketing is stripped away to reveal basic and cynical instructions about how we should live our lives.Like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, They Live examines how people willingly give up their individuality out of a desire for wealth, pleasure, status or acceptance. Whether these desires are conscious or unconscious is hard to say, since the messages conveyed in the media are more or less the same – people need to own the latest cars and gadgets so they can look like people on TV. The film is in its very essence deeply critical of television; Carpenter shot it so that much of the action takes place at the extreme ends of the frame, making it hard to show the film on the small screen.

The Body-Snatchers elements of They Live are conveyed through an indictment of America’s social structure. Rather than simply being invaders, here the aliens are part of the rich elite, exploiting the underclass and squeezing the middle class. Everyone is getting poorer, but people keep buying into the system because all the information they receive promotes aspiration and consumerism. There is a running mention of the aliens treating the human race as its own third world; we buy into their ideals just as the poor of Africa come to believe they can work their way out of poverty. In other words, we consume as we are about to be consumed.For action movie fans, They Live has largely been remembered for two scenes. The first is where Piper inadvertently wanders into a bank with a shotgun to escape the police. Staring at the aliens in front of him, he quips: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” It’s still one of the coolest and funniest lines of the 1980s, superbly capturing the tone of the film.

The other is the lengthy fight sequence, which was famously parodied almost shot-for-shot in the South Park episode ‘Cripple Fight’. Piper and Keith David beat the living daylights out of each other as Piper tries to convince David to put on the sunglasses. Like so much 1980s action, what once seemed brutal and realistic now looks quite ridiculous, especially in an age where comic book violence has become the norm. We may believe that the characters are getting hurt, but the fact that they keep getting up so many times pushes credibility to the limit.The biggest problem with They Live is that it is incredibly uneven. It has the same kind of structural flaws as Dark Star, with different scenes being played for different effect. Sometimes it wants it to be an action movie, so the characters fire guns with bottomless magazines and manage to kill dozens of guards without getting hit. Sometimes it wants to be scary, so we get scenes of emotionless police officers beating people to death. Sometimes it wants to be funny, such as the bubblegum scene or the final shot which features an alien with a naked woman in a hotel. The film is always entertaining, but we’re never sure quite where things are heading, and because the style and genre keep changing, it is not as tense or claustrophobic as it could be.They Live is not Carpenter’s finest work by quite some stretch. Aside from its uneven keel, the characters are not as well-drawn as they are in his earlier work. Certainly Meg Foster is an odd choice for a love interest; her reptilian eyes and icy demeanour seem to give away her allegiances far too early. But aside from these problems, They Live is an entertaining action-comedy-thriller with a good compromise between substance and spectacle. It is wittily constructed and Roddy Piper carries himself well, being more talented and less annoying than Hulk Hogan. After so long in the wilderness, one hopes Carpenter’s new project will be just as enticing.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Uneven but always entertaining


Post a Comment