Directed by: John Carpenter.
Written by: John Carpenter based on the short story by Ray Nelson.
Starring: Roddy Piper (John Nada), Keith David (Frank Armitage), Meg Foster (Holly Thompson),
I have long been a fan of John Carpenter. Films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Thing (1981), Escape from New York (1982) and even, dare I saw it, Ghosts of Mars (2001) are great throwbacks to the days of Howard Hawks. His films, like the work of Hawks, has largely been conservative or right leaning. Which makes his 1988 horror-satire They Live all the more confusing, as it is certainly a left leaning movie, even as it disguises itself with right wing tropes and clichés. They Live was a reaction to 8 years of Ronald Reagan as President, and (at that time) possibly four more years under Reagon’s VP
George Bush. Carpenter,
who maybe more conservative than most Hollywood filmmakers, was no fan of
Reagan, and he compared his Presidency to fascism and wanted to show the
hypocrisy in it. Perhaps that’s why They Live is often celebrated as one of
Carpenter’s best films. But to me, the satire is rather tame and toothless, the
movie confused, and weighed down by clichés and a central performance by a
wrestler, who let’s face it, cannot act to save his life. They are some great
moments in They Live. But the whole movie adds up to very little.
Homeless after being fired from his job, construction worker John Nada (Rowdy Roddy Piper) walks from Denver to L.A. looking for work. He finds it, working under the table on a construction site, but the job doesn’t pay well, so he ends up living in a shanty town that fellow worker Frank (Keith David) invites him along. Depite being homeless and unemployed John “still believes in America”, that if you work hard, you can make a success of yourself. But then he starts noticing some strange things going on in a church across the street. When he goes to investigate, he finds the constantly singing choir is just a recording. When the police invade the church – and then destroy the shanty town – John finds a box full of sunglasses, and puts a pair on. Immediately, his world changes. It goes from color to black and white. Ads no longer look the same and are now just single words or phrases that give their underlying message “Consume”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “Watch TV”, “Don’t Question Authority”, “Obey”, etc. More shockingly, some of the people he sees aren’t really people, but hideous, bug eyed aliens. It turns out that aliens have already taken over America, invisible to the naked eye. They want to make Earth into “their third world”, and all humans are either controlled by the messages in their TVs, or willing collaborators with the regime for financial payoff. The church was the headquarters of the only group committed to fighting the aliens.
I don’t know – maybe this all seemed radical back in 1988, but to me, it seems rather tame. Carpenter is obviously comparing the aliens to Reagan and his administration, who was trying to brainwash people into accepting whatever he put out there. And that’s a little bit of a stretch. But it could have easily worked. But I think Carpenter, so beholden to genres clichés, can never really get out of his own way. The film echoes Carpenter’s idol Hawks far too much – the endless fight scene between John and Frank before they can become friends, is a typical Hawks trait. As are the snappy, sexist one liners that Piper spews (which is supposed to be okay, I guess, because they’re directed at aliens posing as women, and not women themselves). Piper is essentially playing the role that Kurt Russell usually played for Carpenter. The difference is that Russell made it work, and Piper doesn’t. When he delivers the films most famous line - “I’ve come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum” –Piper cannot make it work. It just sounds dumb.
There are still some great moments in They Live – as there are in any Carpenter film. The first is the sequence following Piper first putting on the sunglasses, which is a small tour de force for Carpenter behind the camera. The sequence that ends the film is full of some great, comedic moments as well. But these moments are few and far between.
Near the end of They Live, John Carpenter has two film critics on TV (obviously meant to be Siskel and Ebert) who are exposed as aliens and complaining about “filmmakers like
George A. Romero
and John Carpenter” who have gone too far. This shout out to Romero, as well as
putting his name in the same sentence, is supposed to signal that Carpenter
wanted to make a film like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (or its sequels
Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), which combined social commentary with
horror. The difference between what Romero achieved in those films (and later
in Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, and even in parts of the most
recent, Survival of the Dead), is that while Romero is using the zombie genre
to comment on things like racism, the demise of the American family,
consumerism, the military industrial complex, capitalism and war, the satire is
never pushed to the front of the movie like Carpenter has done with They Live.
It’s both more subtle, yet more on target and incisive than Carpenter has
pulled off with They Live. That’s why Romero is a master. And why Carpenter, as
good as he can be, is a step or two behind him.