Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: They Live (1988)

They Live (1988)

Rated R

Score: 4 out of 5

A great big middle finger to '80s yuppie culture, They Live is a movie that will always have an audience. Even with its dated aesthetics, there will always be people who think that society is stacked against them and that all the problems in society aren't just a coincidence. It's a film that can be looked at as a metaphor for neocolonialism, as a critique of capitalism and/or big government depending on one's leanings, or as a film that pulls back the curtain on the Secret Masters of the World for the more paranoid out there. It's both a white-hot satire and an intense, if uneven, action-thriller on its technical merits that marks another high point in the career of John Carpenter.

Our protagonist, known only as Nada, is a drifter played by pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper who's just arrived in Los Angeles looking for work. Taking a job on a construction site while living in a tent city with his similarly destitute co-worker, the former Midwestern steel worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), Nada initially dismisses the ravings of some of the other folks living there, who allege that shadowy forces control the world and wish to keep people brainwashed, ignorant, and too divided to fight back. However, after a police raid on a nearby church that turns out to be a front for a rebel group, Nada searches the place and discovers a box full of sunglasses that reveal the reality of the world: that many of the people around him are actually aliens in human disguise who secretly rule everything, and that behind all of our advertisements, magazines, and dollar bills are subliminal messages designed to turn us into consumerist sheep. It isn't long before Nada, freshly woke to the truth, sets out to wage a one-man war against the system, with the help of Frank and Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), the sympathetic assistant director at a TV station who can help him jam the signals they fill the air with.

Needless to say, the above plot is essentially a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. It's got lizard people ruling the world, it's got subliminal brainwashing, it's got the elites of humanity selling the rest of us out to Them to preserve their privilege, and it's got the one man who's got their game all figured out. Everybody from the fringes of ufology to tinfoil-hat libertarians to neo-Nazis to, apparently, Roddy Piper himself has latched onto this film as one that reveals what's really going on, like an '80s version of The Matrix. Carpenter, of course, has always steadfastly rejected these interpretations, and watching the film, his intent couldn't be less clear: this film is a pure satire of Reaganism. Everything is framed in terms of mocking the consumerist yuppie culture that had fully flowered by the late '80s, with glamorous advertisements juxtaposed with scenes of grinding poverty, characters discussing the hollowing out of the American middle class, the vagrants' shantytown bulldozed as a nuisance in one harrowing scene, the media keeping people dumbed down with empty pablum, and money being the ultimate power. The aliens' exploitation of humanity is explicitly compared to neocolonialism, with one character saying "we're their Third World." Our first sight of Holly's luxurious apartment, after spending most of the film on the streets, is like stepping onto another planet. This may be one of the most stridently political action films ever made, feeling (much like many of Carpenter's other action flicks) almost like a rebuke to Red Dawn and the muscle-bound demigods of '80s patriotic beefcake cinema. It's easy to see where James DeMonaco got his inspiration from when making The Purge and its sequels, and much like those films, They Live isn't subtle. It bears down on you like a sledgehammer, with Nada's sunglasses revealing a world that literally screams "OBEY" in people's faces. But I'll be damned if it doesn't make for an immediately memorable sight when Nada first puts on those sunglasses. What it lacks in nuance, it more than makes up for with the creative, immediately apparent, and oft-homaged style it brings to its dystopia.

The satire isn't the only place where this film shines. At his best, Carpenter is excellent at directing some rock-solid action scenes and moments of mounting tension, as Nada ventilates aliens while dropping classic one-liners about bubblegum, the aliens strike back against the rebels, and Nada wonders who to trust. A five-minute-plus fistfight between Roddy Piper and Keith David in a back alley, as Nada tries to force Frank to put on the glasses and wake up to the world around him, is probably one of the best depictions of a street fight that I've ever seen in a movie, as they go at it with low blows, trash cans, beer bottles, 2x4s, and everything else in a moment that feels downright raw. Piper is a man of few words as Nada, but he carries the same charisma and screen presence that served him so well in the ring, while Keith David and Meg Foster both shine as ordinary folks from opposite walks of life who don't know if they can buy into what sounds like crazy-talk from Nada. The makeup on the unmasked aliens looks absolutely disgusting, like they'd had their skin seared off and their eyes turned into blackish-red marbles; it was enough to get me to hate them even before I learned of the depths of their villainy. The score is classic Carpenter, synths mixed with the influence of Westerns to create a throbbing pulse that always fits the mood on screen. If there's one real problem with this film, it's that the pacing can be fairly choppy. This is a film that starts as a slow burn, but jumps right into a violent shootout not long after Nada discovers the glasses, and the transitions it makes between action scenes and quiet drama scenes never quite feel right. Just as I was getting into the swing of things, it would suddenly speed up or slow down. Also, I found a twist at the end involving a certain character to be fairly predictable in hindsight, as I was given every reason to believe from his/her actions and demeanor that a certain course of action would be followed. Taking the less predictable option and having this character go against the grain would've helped wipe off a blemish on the ending, and furthermore, could've been used to develop him/her further.

The Bottom Line

BUY. WATCH. OBEY.

Okay, seriously, if you're looking for an offbeat, in-your-face action-thriller that's still all too relevant, check this one out. It's blunt, but it gets its message across, and it's an intensely watchable film on its other merits as well.

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