They Live October 25, 2016
John Carpenter’s damnation of the controlling mass media and the self-centered ruling class in 1988’s terrific They Live might be wiggy — consider that the hero is played by a professional wrestler, that the film features one of the longest, most bizarre fight scenes in movie history, and that its understanding of physics is shakier than my hands after drinking two cups of black coffee on an empty stomach — but wigginess doesn’t always equal shoddiness and Carpenter wisely contemplates all the necessary precautions before going for deep-throated satire.
Because the guy’s apt and a dependable filmmaker when it comes to reinvention in the genres H.P. Lovecraft loved the most, just about everything about They Live is effective. It’s broad, sure, but its mania is endearing, and Carpenter’s cultural observations are so sharp and so solidified that the frenzy surrounding his full-bodied lampooning only polishes his stance. An abundance of self-seriousness and we’d have a no-fun arthouse feature, so welcome is They Live’s pulp imitating cheekiness.
The movie stars Roddy Piper as an unnamed, down-on-his-luck drifter (that the closing credits refer to as “Nada”) in the slums of Los Angeles looking for work. Shortly after a montage decides that finding a job ain’t as easy a task as the bourgeoisie would think, Nada gets a construction gig that temporarily puts an end to his lack of prosperity.
But Nada’s world is rocked when the local shantytown is massacred by what appears to be law enforcement officials. With the attack coming hours after being a captive audience member to a blind preacher’s (Raymond St. Jacques) ramblings about some form of world domination on the part of beings from outer space, things are awfully suspicious — especially so when Nada stumbles across a box of sunglasses left over in the wreckage.
Moments after he puts a pair on, though, does the world, in a Matrix twist, become gnarled beyond belief. Through this new accessory does Nada see everyday existence for what it really is: a black-and-white wasteland where the upper class is vicious, very literal monsters controlling those beneath them through the media. Advertisements suddenly read “obey,” “marry and reproduce” instead of “buy this computer,” “travel to the Caribbean”; persons of interests are distinguished by their looking like kids dressing up as Skeletor.
Because it’s unappealing to see a reality so frightening, Nada takes it upon himself to join a resistance group and fight the power. But since the patriarchy is much more dangerous than it’s been cracked up to be all these years, the man, though burly and weary, may not be able to survive for as long as he’d figure himself to be able to against an average foe.
Perhaps no one would survive as for as long as Nada, however — what we have in him is an almost comically tough quasi-fighter who’d give Schwarzenegger a run for his money if his mullet didn’t make him so distinctly uncool. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” he iconically proclaims to a group of fiends at one point during the film. “And I’ve just finished my bubblegum.” If that isn’t the best one-liner in an action movie and if Nada isn’t the most underrated anti-hero since Franco Nero, then I’m Bruce Lee’s cousin.
So exquisite is the way Carpenter’s so deftly able to make a durable, horror-tinged action comedy with as many perceptive tunings of social commentary as unfiltered stabs of delight. This is a perfect genre feature: death-defying, jam-packed, exciting, manic, and a little cheesy. They Lives is among Carpenter’s finest films. A-