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A homeless drifter rolls into town in hopes of finding work. His name is John Nada, or at least that's what the credits inform us. He is a taciturn fellow, and like Clint Eastwood's iconic Western antihero, he keeps his thoughts and his name close to his manly chest.
Nada gets a construction job--hard work for little pay--and beds down in a shanty town of fellow outcasts--cold nights in the company of the poor. One night, a platoon of storm troopers and officers in full riot gear descends on the shanty town to reduce it to rubble. If this were not so horrible, it would be absurd: the unarmed and the infirm vs. tanks and machine guns.
The following morning, Nada discovers what all the violence was about: a secret cache of weapons that the forces of law and order needed to capture at all costs. But as terrorist cells go, the conspirators hiding in the shanty town were an odd lot. Their "weapons" were not guns or bombs, nothing so pedestrian. They were sunglasses.
You read that right. Sunglasses. Only when the drifter puts a pair of the glasses on does he figure out what makes them so special, so dangerous. These glasses don't merely filter bright light, they filter lies. Look through these lenses and you can see things as they really are.
For example, what might look like innocuous billboards are actually subliminal commands to OBEY or SLEEP. And what might look like happy prosperous yuppies are in fact hideous bug-eyed monsters.
The disquieting truth of the world is that the winners are a wholly different species than the losers, and they've set up a system to guarantee the underclass never objects to their decrepit condition. They live, we sleep.
It's a potent idea for a sci-fi thriller, almost too rich for the trifling movie that supports it. They Live (1988) is a work of pulp fiction, best known for these attributes: 1) being the starring vehicle for professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper; 2) featuring the line "I came to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I'm all out of bubblegum;" 3) including one of the longest fight scenes in movie history, which drags on for over five minutes and serves no narrative function whatsoever; 4) concluding with a ridiculous sight gag in which a topless woman realizes she is bestride a bug-eyed monster.
If these elements serve as a compelling come-on to you, chances are you have already seen They Live, and if you've already seen it chances are you are also one of its devoted fans. But if that litany of pulpy characteristics turns you off, well, don't be so quick to judge. This is after all a movie about deceptive appearances. And They Live is not entirely what it appears to be.
It appears to be a sci-fi thriller of impoverished production values. Compared to the exhaustively fully realized world of, say, The Thing (1951) or Escape from New York (1981), director John Carpenter this time makes do with little more than the actual cityscapes of Los Angeles. The aliens' make-up is little more than a Halloween mask, and props leftover from Ghostbusters (1984) were roped back into use.
But to focus on these limitations of budget is to miss the point: They Live remains a remarkable and entertaining film for the ingenious ways it takes these familiar sights and modestly realized unfamiliar visions and turns them into genuine suspense and terror.
Piper is not as incompetent an actor as you might expect. He fares better when allowed to be the strong silent type than when called upon to deliver dialogue, at least when he opens his mouth he gets outlandishly enjoyable dialogue such as the aforementioned chewing gum crack. The dimensions of the role suggest that Carpenter had a Kurt Russell in mind, or a Kurt Russell type at least. As a Kurt Russell substitute, Piper holds his own.
His comrade in alien-fighting arms is played by Keith David, another burly chested masculine archetype, who played opposite the real Kurt Russell in Carpenter's The Thing. Carpenter wrote this role with David in mind, and tailored the part expressly for him--including that ludicrous fight scene.
It took three weeks to rehearse, and occupies 6/90 of the movie's running time. The combatants are David and Piper, onscreen pals who are fighting more out of a macho sense of pride than anything else. There is little at stake dramatically, as neither man genuinely wants to hurt the other, nor will the outcome meaningfully alter the direction of the plot. That is not to say it is pointless violence, however. Other sci-fi flicks, like the 1950s pulp classics that so deeply influenced Carpenter, invariably found a way to bring in an egghead hero, a scientist who could figure out the threat and propose a viable solution. In the world of They Live, the smart and successful are assumed to be the enemy. The revolution is brewing among the outcasts and losers. Thus, the film finds as its heroes a pair of lug nuts who only know how to solve problems by using their fists. A different protagonist might approach the problem differently. Nada's going to keep on punching until things get better, because that's all he has to offer.
"I'm all out of bubblegum."
The premise is derived from a 1963 short story by Ray Nelson called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning." In the story, Nada somehow awakes from a hypnotically-induced trance state that still influences everyone else around him. He is now capable of seeing the monstrous "fascinators" who rule his world in secret. In rough contours, the film's screenplay follows the outline of the story, fleshing out what took Nelson a few pages to describe into a feature-length action thriller. And along the way, he stuffed the thing with bitter satire.
In 1988, John Carpenter was angry. Reagan's America seemed to him so unnecessarily cruel. Homeless shelters were closing, dispersing helpless people into urban wastelands to fend for themselves, while junk bond traders and architects of corporate takeovers found unfathomable riches doing things that were socially destructive. Factories closed and industries died, while corporate executives enjoyed fatter bonuses and deeper tax breaks. The whole system seemed perversely out of joint, as if it had been expressly designed to profit the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Worse, the people most injured by the system seemed to passively accept their fate, content to enjoy the asinine and ephemeral pleasures of TV and consumerism as a substitute for a caring and generous society.
The premise of Nelson's story provided the structure for turning this anger into drama. On one level, Carpenter's screenplay (pseudonymously attributed to "Frank Armitage") is a tale of class warfare, a revolutionary screed advocating the violent overthrow of the moneyed classes. But, crucially, this incendiary stuff has been transposed into a different key, and made to look like a silly 1980s sci-fi programmer. Take away all the discussion of high-tech sunglasses and the rest of the story still makes sense. The idea that Roddy Piper is taking up arms against aliens makes the polemic more palatable...but no less cutting.
Some aspects of They Live cannot help but seem dated to modern eyes. The fashions and hairstyles are straight out of the 1980s. The central preoccupations of the film, with its opposition between homeless people versus yuppies, is drawn from 1980s headlines. Christian groups and concerned parents spent the decade alleging the existence of subliminal messages in popular music, a concept not far off from the hypnotic control exerted by the aliens in the film. The decision to cast a professional wrestler in the lead role, the idea that the aliens' identifying technology is a fancy Rolex watch, the fact that the action revolves around access to a terrestrial television broadcast tower--these are all aspects of 1980s iconography that would have to be updated in any remake. That a remake is in fact being considered now, however, speaks to the fact that behind these 1980s artifacts lies something that hasn't dated at all.
The economic conditions decried by They Live are if anything even more true today than back then. When characters in the film spout lines of dialogue about the gutting of the middle class, or the unfairness of executive bonuses, such lines could be dropped intact into any political speech today.
For that matter, Carpenter wrote some of the dialogue by extracting things out of political speeches made then (one of the aliens is seen delivering Reagan's famous "Morning in America" oration). When a Universal executive questioned the logic of the film, arguing that selling out isn't a bad thing at all but part of the fabric of daily life, a shocked Carpenter simply gave the rant, word for word, to one of the film's baddies.
Producer: Larry Franco
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Frank Armitage (screenplay); Ray Nelson (short story)
Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe
Art Direction: William J. Durrell, Jr., Daniel Lomino
Music: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Film Editing: Gib Jaffe, Frank E. Jimenez
Cast: Roddy Piper (John Nada), Keith David (Frank Armitage), Meg Foster (Holly Thompson), George 'Buck' Flower (The Drifter), Peter Jason (Gilbert), Raymond St. Jacques (Street Preacher), Jason Robards III (Family Man), John Lawrence (Bearded Man), Susan Barnes (Brown Haired Woman), Sy Richardson (Black Revolutionary).
BW & C-93m.
by David Kalat
Jonathan Lethem, They Live.
Ray Nelson, Eight O'Clock in the Morning.