Up to this point in his career, John Carpenter had remained an apolitical filmmaker, focusing instead on ambiguous evil. With “They Live,” Carpenter put his political philosophies on his sleeve. This is a movie with a blunt political agenda. In it, the rich, upper class, predominately right-wing Republicans are evil, demonic aliens from outer space. One of the things that’s most brilliant about the film is that it criticizes Regan-era politics through one of its most enduring pop culture contribution: The tough guy, hyper-macho, shoot-em-up action movie. Like George Romero’s best films sneaks social critique in under traditional horror trappings, “They Live” is a big dumb action movie built around biting social satire.
The film has an immediately hooking premise. A drifter, an everyman named Nada, wanders into California looking for work. It’s not easy to find, here in 1988. Despite Ronald Regan’s trickle down economic supposedly boosting America’s budget, that cash hasn’t trickle down to a blue-collar worker like Nada. He’s turned away from the unemployment office, sleeping in homeless shelters, and has to wiggle his way into a construction job. After getting his hands on a mysterious box of sunglasses, “They Live” comes to its most brilliant narrative device. The ominous, omniscient “they” of the title has manipulated human kind with super-subliminal messages all around us. Billboards are actually labeled “OBEY,” money is marked with “This is Your God,” magazines read “Watch TV,” “Don’t Question Authority,” and “Consume and Reproduce.” It’s both hilarious and kind of subtly terrifying. From that point on, “They Live” will have any viewer all ready on its wavelength totally hooked.
Though that element of the film is widely referenced, it doesn’t actually factor much into the film after that first half-hour. “They Live” is actually fantastically paced. Its first act is rather slow, focusing on Nada’s situation and the general social situation, slowly revealing the conspiracy. After the sunglasses go on and the conspiracy is revealed, “They Live” ramps up into an awesome action-packed violence-fest. The glasses are actually just a launching pad for this action. Roddy Piper launches into what would be, out of context, a random shooting rampage. That it works is a testament to how much Carpenter has put the audience on the character’s side, the general fantasized tone of the film, and Piper’s natural charm.
“They Live” features some of John Carpenter’s best action. It’s stronger then that seen in “Escape from New York” or “The Thing,” playing like something of a cross between “Rambo”-style machine gun murder and Hong Kong, heroic bloodshed bullet ballet. The first real action scene, the scuffle with the street cops, is nicely edited and defuses any unpleasant overtones with cathartic bad-assery. The bank shoot-out is an early highlight, with some nice shot gun brain scattering and creative blasting. Nada and Frank holding off alien forces in a back aisle also works well, with Roddy Piper being adapt at making gunning down bad guys an entertaining visual. The final raid is pure, eighties action cheese. Two heroes, armed with machine guns and bottomless magazines, successfully break through enemy arms. The movie comes close to falling into the “guns go off, people fall down” doldrums during this sequence but there’s enough creative gun-slinging to prevent this and keep things fun and interesting.
And the fight, of course. “They Live’s” most enduring contribution to action cinema is the legendary man-on-man wrestling match between Roddy Piper and Keith David. Going on for nearly six minutes, the fight scene continues pass the limits of absurdity, stretching into pure one-on-one theatrics. The two guys struggle, bleed, bash each other senseless, push against walls, and land hard on concrete. It’s easy to believe that Piper and David really did beat the shit out of each other. Though bare-knuckled and intentionally direct, lacking the finesse of kung-fu choreography, the scene flows nicely from an action standard. It’s a beloved sequence in cult movie history for a reason.
The movie’s stand on pop culture is even cloudier. It gladly points at television as a means to pacify and placate the masses, despite the director, you know, working in that industry. Perhaps we aren’t meant to read too much into this. Either way, the movie’s theme certainly hits a nerve. (Especially since very little has changed.) It predated, predicted, and possibly influenced several conspiracy theories people actually believe.
The film doesn’t have a wide cast, instead focusing on three central characters. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, of course, got his start in the pro-wrestling rings and could never be commended for his range. However, in “They Live” and Nada, he found a good home for his humble, everyman charms. He looks like a real hard labor worker and never seems less then genuine. His physicality is well-suited to the part. He makes completely ridiculous one-liners hit with humor and energy. While the film probably should have made the easily charming Piper an action superstar, his acting career never really took off. To give you an idea of these diminished returns, his later films had him playing sidekick to Billy Blanks and Don “The Dragon” Wilson.
I’ve met) brings her expected level of professionalism to the part. Carpenter regular Peter Jason also gets a bit part as one of the leaders of the rebellion.
In addition to solid action, Carpenter deploys some strong style here. My favorite is the brief use of Bava-esque purple colors washing over a few scenes. His POV shots are attached to gun barrels this time. While the aliens aren’t the greatest special effects, their designs are effective never the less. Their big bug-eyes attach them to expected alien clichés, as does the blue skin, while their appearance intentionally recall skinless bodies and skull-like death-heads. With a little more money, the creatures probably could have been genuinely creepy visuals. The cherry atop the Carpenter style sundae is his bluesy, moody score. It’s one of his best, with the jazzy tones linking to the common man characters.
Though the film was met with something of a shrug from mainstream audiences like all of John Carpenter’s post-“Thing” films, the movie has become perhaps the director’s most cultishly beloved film. The “all out of bubblegum” ad-lib has taken on a life of its own, being referenced countless times throughout multiple mediums. (In addition to naming one of my favorite websites.) The back-aisle brawl has taken on memeic status, most infamously recreated clothesline-for-clothesline, bodyslam-for-bodyslam on an episode of “South Park.” The movie is a fairly frequent fixture on cable channels and widely regarded as a classic of the action and sci-fi genre. It’s a personal project for Carpenter and also a lot of fun. They live, we sleep, and this movie kicks ass. [Grade: A-]