They Live (1988)

they_liveAs members of the film-geek community, we can all agree that John Carpenter has his ups (The Thing) and his downs (The Fog; come on guys, it’s not good). They Live lies somewhere in between, a film with absolutely fantastically wonderful ideas but pretty flawed, though nonetheless entertaining, execution. I’d always been told that I’d like They Live, but the never-ending list of films to watch is vast indeed; it took Slavoj Žižek’s endorsement to finally put it at the top of the list.

Our hero, John Nada (Roddy Piper) is trying his best to thrive in a flailing society; jobs are scarce, and it’s the hunt for work that has brought him to Los Angeles. He’s not having too much luck there, until he stumbles upon a pop-up community of like-minded individuals who will work whenever they can find it and help out those who are having a rough time of it. There he finds a friend (sort of?), a hard-working dude named Frank Armitage (Keith David) who takes him under his wing (sort of?).

The community is next to a church, where the choir sings well into the night, or at least that’s how it seems, until Nada walks in to find the singing is just a recording. The church is actually a cover for an underground group that is attempting to illuminate the truth for the poor dupes in the world. Their main attempts to infiltrate television broadcasts are sloppy and ineffective; your Average Joe just bangs on the television set, complaining of interference. The mother lode lies in magic sunglasses.

These aren’t your average Ray-Bans; as soon as Nada puts them on, seemingly innocuous billboards and magazine covers reveal their true purpose. An advertisement for a hot vacation, under examination of magic sunglasses, is a blatant message commanding consumers to “Marry and Reproduce.” Other messages spotted are “Obey,” “Stay Asleep,” and “Submit to Authority.” The true messages behind the glossy marketing are upsetting, of course, but what’s worse is what Nada sees in people: a great many of them no longer look human, where there pretty faces once were now reveals nothing but a soulless skull.

A revelation such as this is hard to keep to oneself, so Nada tries his darndest to get Armitage to put on the glasses. He has absolutely no interest in “waking up” and is defiant enough to warrant a notoriously long and over-the-top fight scene between the two. Eventually, Nada succeeds in putting the glasses on his pal and Armitage can do nothing but admit the truth. The two hatch a plan to rebel, and quickly learn that the Earth is being controlled by a small cadre of elite aliens (those skulls we’ve seen around) who are exploiting it for their own purposes. The unsuspecting humans are kept under control by a broadcast signal; if the two men can find the source of it, they can see to it that everyone wakes up.

I can’t express how much I love the premise of this movie: the 1% are actually aliens from another planet brainwashing the rest of us 99ers? Brilliant. Seriously. I love it. And as simple as the premise may seem, I could expound for several paragraphs on its far-reaching implications, but let’s see if I can sum it up in just a few sentences. Of course the 1% don’t care about the Earth, Global Warming, pollution and poor people – they aren’t even human for chrissakes. Their humanity is all-but erased by greed and they are drunk on power. They keep the poor schlubs, those of us who keep the clock ticking for the rich and powerful thinking that we actually have a choice in the matter, but when we look deeper, there is of course no choice at all, there is only the illusion of choice. No matter what route we take, we are all doomed to a meaningless life of servitude and we are so blinded by the rat-race we can’t even see the truth for ourselves.

What a great idea for a movie, right? Unfortunately, Carpenter gets more than a little off track, and what could be a truly intellectually challenging and thought-provoking film turns into a brutish wrestling match. What do you expect, of course, when your lead guy is a famous WWF wrestler? The poor fella can’t act his way out of a paper bag, so instead he just punches his way out, and Carpenter seems to blithely go with it. All that being said, it may be the lightness with which the subject is eventually tackled that makes this a really enjoyable, though terribly confused, movie. It is nothing if not fun, and to be perfectly frank, that’s my favorite part about watching movies: having fun. I guess Carpenter proves that you can still have fun while calling out some of the worst injustices of modern society, and I think that ability might be more than just a little worthwhile.

They Live might be a little unsure about what exactly it wants to be, but don’t judge it too harshly. While definitely not as good as I wanted it to be (and not as good as I thought it was going to be 30 minutes in) it is still a movie worth seeing, and it definitely gets points for trying. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a must-see, I am most definitely glad I watched it, and I can’t wait to watch it again.


5 Responses to “They Live (1988)”

  1. February 18, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Nice review. I love this movie, especially the long, drawn-out, ridiculous fight scene.

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