“We all sell out every day; it might as well be on the winning team.”
What “They Live” has to offer may come as a surprise. It is, after all, about an alien civilization creating a global consumer culture through mass hypnosis in order to use the human race as livestock. And it is, after all, directed by John Carpenter, the man whose resume is diverse enough to include such titles as “Halloween,” “Escape from New York,” “Starman,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” and “Vampires,” to name a few.
Shot during the spring of 1988 on location in the varied geological expanse that is Los Angeles, “They Live” begins with director Carpenter’s signature widescreen shots of grungy town outskirts and dilapidated rail yards. We see “Nada,” played effectively–if a little excessively–by professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, navigating his way through boxcars and railroad tracks with nothing but a duffel bag hanging from his husky frame.
These introductory visuals give the film a thorough sense of time and place, and are, perhaps, what’s ballsiest about the whole endeavor. Not only did John Carpenter present a modern US city resembling a Depression-era decaying metropolis with shanty towns at its margins and nauseating bourgeois self-indulgence at its core, but he set it during the height of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and lobbed criticism at the very culture that was forming around him.
Opposite Piper’s Nada is Keith David’s Frank, a family man from the Midwest who’s temporarily left his wife and child behind to find work on the coast. It calls to mind, first and foremost, The Great Depression and the kinds of hard times endured by characters in something like “The Grapes of Wrath.” But it also calls to mind Mexican immigration, the things that drive dispossessed workers south of the border to find jobs in the States, and, though it wasn’t yet a reality at the time, NAFTA (and all of its consequences).
Some of Frank’s commentary on Reaganomics and free market ideology is very pointed, clear, and rather astute, especially from a laborer’s perspective: “You do what you can, but remember–I’m gonna do my best to blow your ass away.” Does a more accurate and concise characterization of the free market exist? Certainly not in popular entertainment. And perhaps less astute, but every bit as pointed and compelling, is the line: “They close one more factory, we should take a sledge to one of their fancy fucking foreign cars.” There’s something about working-class fervor that gives me a jolt every time, even if it’s misguided.
Really, though, that’s all context for one of the craziest movies to come out of a major studio I’ve ever seen (one that could’ve very easily found a place in last week’s Top 10). There’s so much bizarre humor, dialogue, and goofy plot points throughout that it becomes a self-justifying explosion of sincerity and tongue-in-cheek brutality.
And on that note, even though it’s been discussed ad nauseum, can we just briefly reflect on that fight scene at the film’s center? After achieving fugitive status, Piper tries to get David to put on a pair of sunglasses that would allow him to see the world as it really is (full of subliminal messages to conform and consume hidden beneath commercial advertising and hideous aliens walking among us).
What ensues is one of the most visceral, over-the-top, transcendentally ridiculous depictions of street combat ever filmed. So ridiculous and hilarious, in fact, that it afforded itself an homage in an episode of South Park nearly twenty years after its release. That’s how you know you’ve made it.
There are so many memorable scenes and moments of dialogue in the film that I would get on my own nerves trying to do them justice. The scenes with Holly (Meg Foster) alone speak to this; they’re riddled with inexplicable sexual tension and are actually creepy in their stilted awkwardness. There’s something about that woman’s eyes that disconcerts me every time she pops up on screen. But I suppose that’s just serendipitous casting.
Behind its veneer of conspiratorial Sci-Fi, cornball humor, and incisive consumer satire, “They Live” contains some very ominous and relevant pronouncements about capitalism and the kind of social climate it can bring about. We see a bloated state capitulating to an opulent minority, indiscriminately killing populist organizers, and happily selling out its own citizenry, none of which is played for laughs.
Carpenter, in what strikes me as extremely self-assured and unrestrained by commercial worries, makes the film’s Reagan-era present seem like a post-apocalyptic future (or a Depression-era past). But it’s the stylistic choices paying homage to 50s B pictures and the purposeful zaniness of the film’s chronology that really sell it as entertainment.