John Carpenter's They Live is a smart movie wrapped inside a dumb movie. The dumb movie part-with its cheesy effects, bad acting, corny dialogue, and stock tropes-is just transparent enough that you can see the smart part inside dealing with the uniquely insidious nature of commercial culture and the sense of conformity it not just encourages, but engenders. This can make for a weird viewing experience because we're never quite sure whether we should take the film's ideas seriously and laugh off the stilted container that holds them or just let the B-movie ridiculousness take over. Carpenter is essentially making a comedy, but it's not always a very good comedy, which means that it's hard to justify its various aesthetic failings on the grounds of social satire. It also doesn't help that Carpenter's good ideas ultimately fizzle, rather than catch fire; the first half of the film is a great set-up, but the second half is a letdown of lazy action sequences that do little more than lead to another outsider-hero exposing the system, which just so happens to be one of Carpenter's favorite themes.
The film's unnamed hero (he is credited at the end as Nada, which means "nothing" in Spanish) is an itinerant construction worker played by Roddy Piper, who at the time was best known as a WWF wrestling superstar whose "Rowdy Roddy Piper" persona was an outsized Scottish villain that people loved to hate. Piper played it well in the ring and when blaring into Gene Okerlund's microphone before and after his bouts with the likes of Hulk Hogan and Greg Valentine, which apparently was enough to convince Carpenter that he could carry an entire film on his massive shoulders (he had previously starred in the schlocky 1988 post-apocalyptic action movie Hell Comes to Frogtown). Unfortunately, that is simply not the case, as Piper is no Kurt Russell, the actor to whom Carpenter typically turned for these sorts of roles (see 1981's Escape From New York, 1982's The Thing, and 1986's Big Trouble in Little China). Piper has a decided lack of range and clear discomfort doing anything subtle or normal. Once he gets to turn on the rage and blast off a machine gun with one hand, he feels in his element; otherwise, his performance is amateurish at best.
The gist of the narrative, which is loosely based on the 1963 short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by sci-fi writer Ray Nelson, is that Nada stumbles upon a worldwide conspiracy in which skeletal-faced aliens have infiltrated the human race and are essentially controlling us with subliminal messages that encourage lack of critical thinking, shallow desires, and excess consumption (OBEY, CONSUME, REPRODUCE). One can see these aliens in their true form (otherwise they just look like ordinary people) with sunglasses that have been developed by an underground resistance that is trying to spread the word by hacking television signals. The aliens are aided and abetted by the one-percenters, the wealthiest and most powerful people who stand to benefit financially by cooperating with them, which is perhaps the film's most pointed jab at Reaganomics. The early sections of the film focus on Nada and other struggling blue-collar workers like Frank (Keith David), who had to leave his wife and children behind in Detroit to find work elsewhere. They meet in a shabby tent camp on the edge of the city for the homeless and dispossessed whose promised "trickle down" from the wealthy getting wealthier didn't happen.
They Live takes a delirious turn once Nada uses the sunglasses to reveal the way the world actually is (which is rendered in black and white, giving the images of the rubbery, bug-eyed, melted-skull alien faces an amusingly retro cheap-'50s sci-fi vibe). Nada goes from being a struggling symbol of the oppressed working class to a gun-toting action hero who spends most of the rest of the film blasting aliens with heavy artillery, epitomized in the now immortal line he delivers upon walking into a bank full of aliens: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." According to Carpenter, that line was Piper's idea and came from a scrawled list of bits he came up with for her wrestling persona, which is why it is simultaneously hilarious and utterly nonsensical. But, that's just how the movie rolls. Later, Nada and Frank engage in what has to be the longest, most ludicrous fistfight in cinema history, which is only one of the film's many self-conscious bouts of supreme silliness. At another point, Nada kidnaps Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), a cable television producer who gets shoehorned into the plot for little reason other than to potentially create a romantic subplot of some kind (romance has never really been Carpenter's strong suit, which is why it goes nowhere).
There is no doubt that They Live has a genuinely enjoyable lunacy that can be infectious. It's low-budget and low-brow and ludicrous, although at times its underlying social satire has a pointed clarity (there is a reason it has been given so much attention by various academics, including Slavoj iek). The film's take on dull-minded consumerism and the power of ideology makes it not just a sharp critique of the economic and social excesses of the '80s, but a prescient look ahead to an era in which the Occupy movement has been followed by the election of a self-serving billionaire to the highest political office. In a June 2016 interview on the WTF podcast, Carpenter told Marc Maron, "[They Live] was my rage at the Reagan Revolution, and yuppies, and the greed of the '80s. I couldn't take it." One can only imagine what kind of movie he would make today.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Shout! Factory
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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