Political undercurrents run under John Carpenter's films as far back as Assault on Precinct 13, its depiction of insatiable, plodding youths converging on a band of police officers and secretaries a subtle inversion of Kent State. Carpenter even scripted Escape from New York as a commentary on the Watergate scandal and the deep damage it caused to public perception of government. Yet They Live is his most political feature yet, a blisteringly funny look at Reagan's consumer America. Perfectly positioned as one of Carpenter's indie films, made after he temporarily quit the box-office-obsessed Hollywood for a few years, They Live carries that extra ounce of authenticity that gives its shamelessly B-movie slant a solid foundation.
They Live takes a bit of time to get off the ground, featuring the decidedly anti-thespian performance of professional wrestler Roddy Piper, who plays such a nobody that his name is Nada. Nada is a drifter who finds himself in L.A. on a construction site to earn some money but, of course, he begins to notice strange occurrences in the area. At night, televisions intercept a homemade channel of a man warning against climate change and materialistic societies, and a nearby church buzzes with activity by night and hosts criers spouting portents of doom by day.
One night, a sea of cops floods the area, beating the churchgoers and bulldozing the shantytown around it. Nada discovers a box filled with tacky sunglasses among the remains and takes a pair for himself. When he puts them on the next day, he sees the world in black and white, and advertisements and products suddenly lose their allure. When he gazes at billboards, he sees only stark messages like "Obey" or "Marry and Reproduce"; a dollar bill becomes a slip of paper that reads "This is your god." The glasses allow Nada to see the subliminal messages not only in ads, but in the products we're meant to consume and the means with which we acquire them. As the capitalist fervor reached its peak in the late '80s, Carpenter uses harsh, decisive black-and-white to reveal the basic truth of the celebration of materialism.
Soon, Nada runs into people who look grotesque and warped when viewed through the glasses. Eventually, he discerns that these people are actually aliens living among us and the force that orchestrated the commercialization of American life. Tellingly, the wealthy in society -- or at least the ones who handled the money, like lenders -- are the aliens, guiding humans like sheep through the numbing equalizer: television. Everywhere Nada looks, he sees nothing but the work of these invaders, entire buildings comprised of messages and desperate consumers slowly made into livestock.
Unfortunately, Carpenter never delves much deeper into the fantastic premise, and while it's clearly meant to serve as a Reagan-era update for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, substituting fear of communism with our own self-destructive greed. But Carpenter traces the root of the problem not to the institutions that ensure their survival by dumbing down the populace into blind conformity but simply to TV's corrosive influence, a conclusion akin to propping up Hitler as the root of anti-Semitism. Television is merely the modern means by which people are kept oblivious, and the idea that an assault on a TV station -- which informs the climax -- could suddenly free society is oversimplified to the point of being just as empty as the culture it seeks to lampoon.
It's even more frustrating when you realize how infuriatingly little we've advanced from the culture of mass consumerism. Early in the film, Nada speaks with another construction worker, Frank (Keith David, the only person who at least comes close to what one might call "acting" here), who discusses some of the problems he's faced, particularly involving the rusting of the steel industry. "We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it," he says, foretelling some of the outrages that exist today, "You know what they gave themselves? Raises."
Having said all that, as a giddy throwback to '50s science fiction and an action thriller, They Live is aces: for all the shortcomings and easy-way-outs Carpenter places into his commentary, his barbs have a genuine wit to them, and he hasn't scripted a film so tightly since Escape from New York. Once you get to the point about 15-20 minutes in, it never lets up, which is handy, because if you're allowed even a second to spare with these actors they whole damn thing might fall apart. There's a certain irony that Nada's response to reaching an epiphany with neo-con money worship consists of grabbing a shotgun and going on a killing spree, but I suppose most revolutions are waged the same way. Besides, it allows for some excellent choreographed action that's quick but steady and sure. Plus, They Live boasts one of the all-time best, longest and most ludicrous fistfights in film history. The sheer, absurd length of it is worth the price of admission (or rental, I suppose I should say).
I originally started this retrospective when my reviews were, on the whole, more basic and a great deal shorter than the ones I churn out now, and I find that I still don't have much to say when it comes to Carpenter's work. But that's because he's so wonderfully economic, not unskilled in flashy techniques but typically unconcerned with employing them. He's one of the great workhorses of modern cinema, and while his films lack the depth of those of his hero, Howard Hawks, he displays Hawks' ability to get in and get the job done without wasting time nor money. I've never seen so many brilliantly understated action thrillers as I have combing through his corpus, and his deep love for classic cinema is perhaps most clearly seen here, with his shameless use of old tinfoil discs-on-wires for flying saucers and his distrust of television, perhaps as a result of forcing movies to become short and stupid so they might easily make their way onto the small screen. His embrace of old B-movie tropes reveals his understanding of how narrow the gap between timeless cinema and trashy kitsch was in the old days, back when the real masterpieces were genre films made by directors who received heaps of scorn for toying with conventions. They Live doesn't really play with any of its contemporary conventions, but for all its thematic simplicity, this film, made by a disillusioned artist who once dreamed of becoming Hollywood's go-to journeyman for pictures of varying genres, deserves points not merely for being terrific fun but for attacking the vampirism of '80s abandon, and not in the salacious, too-stylized way that Bret Easton Ellis would eventually make the de facto form of criticism of Reagaonomic über-capitalism.