Monday, January 29, 2018

Dystopian Visions #3: They Live (1988) ***1/2

John Carpenter's They Live has attracted more attention than anyone imagined at the time of its release back in 1988. I remember an Entertainment Tonight story on the making of the film when I was a kid and thinking it looked like a typical horror movie, the only point of interest being it would star WWF wrestler Roddy Piper. Now like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, Carptenter's vision summed up the state of things in Reagan's America, trickle down economics as the cruel hammer vanquishing the working class.

The film begins with Nada (Piper) arriving in Los Angeles looking for work after losing his construction job in Denver. In L.A. he takes refuge at a shantytown where the rest of the homeless and unemployed pass the time. Pirate TV signals come across the television speaking of a massive plot to enslave the world. Meanwhile, the police engage on a massive crackdown on the dispossessed people. Despite the economic deprivations around him, Nada still looks to a brighter future:

I deliver a hard day's work for my money. I just want the chance. It'll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody's got their own hard times these days.

Nada's eloquent words come right out of John Steinbeck or Bruce Springsteen. Yet he will discover that there are larger forces aligning against those who just want to deliver a hard day's work after he puts on the magic sunglasses. Once he puts on the glasses Nada gets radicalized, for he discovers Skeletor like aliens walk among us - mostly yuppie types.



Carpenter shifts the tone seamlessly, for They Live now becomes a slapstick/exploitation dystopia movie. Nada starts blowing away every alien he sees and utters unforgettable lines like "I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I'm all out of bubble gum." Keith David co-stars as Nada's skeptical friend Frank. They have one of the best fights in cinema history and then join forces against the invaders.

Despite all the hi-jinks, there's a lamenting tone running through They Live. The response to the alien invasion is disorganized and a little pathetic, nothing like the spirited resistance in the 1983 TV movie V.  I suppose the subdued response matches America's passive response to destructive economic policies that makes the Koch Brothers swoon at the sound of cash flooding their bank accounts. 

There's modicum of home in They Live, never getting quite as Nihilistic as Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing. Nada and Frank come out of their slumbers and the same values that drive them to be hard workers also compel them to resist an unjust system. In the mean time be sure to obey, reproduce, and consume. 

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