Director: John Carpenter
In the pantheon of directors that use their films to make social commentaries, one of the most underrated is John Carpenter. While he may have gained fame from such cult classics as Halloween and Escape From New York, perhaps some of his best work comes in films where he had a statement to make. Take movies like The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness. One can view The Thing as a movie about McCarthyesque politics, while In The Mouth of Madness can be seen as a cautionary tale about losing yourself in fantasy while reality crashes around you. Another of these movies is They Live, a near-parody of the "Reaganomics" society of the late 1980s, where wealth ends up in the hands of a yuppie minority while the working class get poorer and poorer. While not as famous or acclaimed as some of his other films, I'm of the opinion that's it's up there as one of his best. It also marks his return to the realm of science fiction, serving as a nod to classic sci-fi movies from the 1950s, along with a dash of nihilism to boot.
As the movie begins, we're introduced to Nada (Roddy Piper), a down-on-his-luck construction worker who's just moved from Denver to Los Angeles in search of a job. Living out of a backpack he carries with him, Nada finally finds work at a construction site. But unfortunately, with no money to rent an apartment or motel room, he's forced to camp in a village of homeless people near where he works. While relaxing in the homeless neighborhood after work, Nada glances at the old, crappy television that some of his "neighbors" happen to have. It's never explained how exactly they have electricity, so I'm just gonna assume that they somehow had a generator, or patched into a utility pole. Maybe they even got an extention cord and snuck it into someone's house. Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they're not resilient. Anyway, all that's on TV are crappy fashion commercials until a pirate broadcast interrupts. A gruff middle-aged man with a beard rants off some kind of conspiracy theory, amusing Nada, who compares the rant to a similar statement that a fellow construction worker, Frank (Keith David), made earlier.
When Nada notices some suspicious activity around a Presbyterian church across the street from his makeshift home, it arouses suspicions that the conspiracy ideas may actually have merit. He sneaks into the church, where he discovers a large chemistry set, and boxes of seemingly ordinary sunglasses. He takes a box, hiding it in an alley for safekeeping. When he walks back into the street and puts on the glasses, he makes a discovery that he was never prepared for. Street signs, billboards, and magazines contain subliminal messages like "Obey," "Conform," "No Independent Thought," and "Do Not Question Authority." Money contains the message "This Is Your God." But it's not until he bumps into a man at a magazine rack that he discovers that he can see the true face of humanity. The wealthy and important are actually aliens that are keeping humans ignorant to their plan of planetary domination through submiminal messages and hypnotism. And by God, Nada's gonna bring 'em down.
Up until the discovery of the sunglasses, the movie's atmosphere is unusual, and is relatively slow. It seems like Carpenter is making an attempt to make a bland, preachy movie about the poor and downtrodden of society. But after ol' Rowdy Roddy finds the glasses (which makes everything look black-and-white, by the way), the movie gets crazy-go-nuts. I think the only other guys that would have worked in the lead role would maybe be Bruce Campbell or Kurt Russell, but I think Roddy does what he does with excellence. His pro wrestling background helped him a lot, as he was super-intense without even looking like he was upset. Besides, I don't believe that Bruce Campbell or Kurt Russell could have made a five-minute street fight look good, nor deliver some of Nada's great dialogue. I don't know who else could storm into a bank with a shotgun and declare "I am here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum" with a straight face. The rest of the actors, I could really take or leave them. None of them particularly stand out. The movie is all Roddy Piper.
The movie's script is great, though its source material helped it a great deal. Based on Ray Nelson's short story "Eight O'Clock In The Morning" (which you can read HERE), They Live could be looked at as being The Matrix (i.e. a man discovers that the world he knows isn't what he thinks) with a smaller budget and less emphasis on flashy, over-gaudy special effects. Carpenter also proves that he can be a master storyteller when he chooses to. With a lesser director, the movie probably would have come off as silly, or unintentionally hammy, but with Carpenter, the movie remains intriguing and suspenseful. I also liked the fact that whenever the hypnotic waves of the aliens' TV broadcasts were interrupted by the pirated broadcasts, those watching got headaches. Nice touch, Mr. Carpenter.
Like with the majority of his movies, Carpenter also did the score for the movie. Despite not being as good as some of his other film scores (Halloween and In The Mouth Of Madness stand out in my mind), this one is certainly fitting, especially in the beginning. It sounds like music you'd hear in a seedy blues bar, which helped make the characters seem even more down on their luck. If there's one thing I like, it's fitting movie scores.
Unfortunately, They Live isn't a well-known effort by Carpenter, sort of like how Duel is the "lost" Steven Spielberg film. Combining sci-fi and action, a cool hero, an unusual narrative, and just a buttload of entertainment, They Live is deserving of far more than the occasional broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel or Halloween movie marathons. If you have yet to see it, check it out. If you have seen it and didn't like it, watch it again and hope for the better. I give it my seal of approval.
Final Rating: ****