By Philip Newton (England)
They Live is an under rated little gem from Halloween director John Carpenter and in many respects could be regarded as his most clever film, due to its satirical content. It is a politically subversive look at eighties yuppie’s and the state of capitalism and consumerism in our society, which still holds up today in many respects. For those worrying, it is not heavy viewing, I mean it does contain one of the most over the top but delightfully hilarious screen fights in cinema history, as well as Roddy Piper’s classic line “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum”.
The story centres around former professional wrestler Roddy Piper as John Nada, which to me sounds like a movie name, anyway Nada is a drifter, the opening scenes simply involve him wandering into a town as a newcomer much like the character of Rambo in First Blood. Nada looking for a job manages to get construction work, and somewhere to sleep in a camp for the homeless.
Things begin to turn strange when he discovers through a resistance group about an alien race whom hypnotize the human population through subliminal messages in the media and conceal themselves as honest and decent young republicans and political leaders. The only way they can be seen for the unpleasant creatures they really are, is through specially tailored sunglasses, which when Nada discovers the truth decides to plan an attack alongside the resistance opposing this new regime.
They Live is a wonderful work as it clearly displays quite evidently the statements it is trying to make, however it does not take itself too seriously always keeping its tongue firmly in cheek. Carpenter harks back to the politically conscious science fiction films of the 1950’s with aliens representing our political leaders, however he avoids getting bogged down in paranoia and doom which films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers had presented. Carpenter is more concerned with consumerism and presenting a satirical viewpoint on this.
The scene where Nada first wears the glasses can be the best example of this, as Nada wanders we see posters and magazines for the images we know them as, and then as the hidden subliminal messages underneath. We are bombarded with statements like Consume, Conform, No independent thought, and we as an audience laugh to ourselves as in many respects there is a truth in this. The magazines we read, TV we watch or the products we buy are controlling how we live and suppressing us in our need to think for ourselves.
Carpenter however despite presenting scenes such as this, ultimately present’s a fun and exciting action film. Scenes with Nada for example and his interactions with the aliens is comical, line’s such as “that’s like putting perfume on a pig” or “formaldehyde face” as well as the bubble gum line are classic eighties cinema fun and light hearted.
The fight scene in particular is a strange shift from the pace of the story; it seems to last for about ten minutes and somehow works because it is so over the top, they actually perform some wrestling moves in the fight. If it had been more routine we might have become bored, but it seems like it is intended to be ridiculous which is what makes it work.
A lot of this over the top fun can be credited to Piper’s performance, and is quite entertaining and engaging in the role. I mean there were rightfully no Oscar nominations coming his way and Piper was not giving us Brando or Olivier, however he does keep the tone of the film fun and energetic to counterbalance the more intelligent and thought provoking themes.
Keith David is also very good in this as Piper’s friend, whom he engages in the fight with. David was very good in The Thing also by Carpenter, he is great at playing uptight and aggressive and the chemistry with Piper is a great component to the film.
Carpenter I find to be quite a prolific director making films varying in genre’s and style’s, I feel this to be perhaps his most intelligent due to its social conscience, for it allows us to question are we controlled, suppressed and told what to consume?