Friday, 2 August 2019
They Live (1988)
It’s also a classic paranoia movie.
We start with an ordinary working class guy named Nada who is down on his luck. He’s desperate to get a job and he gets one, on a construction site. He also finds a place to live, in a shanty town in Los Angeles. The early part of the movie is extremely interesting. There’s a very strong sense of unease. We also get the feeling that this is not quite our world. There’s an incredible gulf between rich and poor. There’s massive unemployment and poverty and there’s homelessness on an enormous scale. The police behave more like an occupying army than a police force.
Television is everywhere. Even in the shanty town there are TV sets. TV programs focus on the lifestyles of the rich and on conspicuous and extravagant consumption. The shanty town dwellers have nothing but they watch TV shows about people who have everything.
There’s a lowly building atmosphere of unease. Something is wrong. People know that something has gone wrong but they have no idea what it is.
The unease gradually changes to outright menace. The church across the road from the shanty town is raided by the police who start shooting people and then demolish the shanty town. The police have lots of helicopters. They watch everything.
Nada was already rather curious about that church. For one thing he’s puzzled that any church would be hosting choir practice at 4 o’clock in the morning. He decides to take a look around. lt turns out that there’s no choir practice going on - that’s just a tape that’s playing. Then he finds a hidden compartment behind a wall, filled with boxes. Nada is no thief but his curiosity is not going to let him leave without taking one of the boxes with them. When he opens the box he’s disappointed that it contains nothing but sunglasses. Then he puts one of the pairs of sunglasses on and everything changes for him. And the movie changes gears dramatically. They’re not ordinary sunglasses. They allow the wearer to see reality. What everyone is seeing is not reality but a kind of hypnotically induced dream state. Reality is very different.
The advertising posters don’t actually advertise anything. They carry messages and the messages are relentless - obey, consume, keep sleeping, conform. Even worse, the people of L.A. aren’t all humans. Many are monsters, clearly aliens. The rich people are mostly aliens. The poor people are all humans. Earth has been occupied by invaders from outer space. Their intention does not appear to be to massacre us but to exploit us for profit.
Nada and Frank intend to fight back. They find a resistance group but the aliens know all about it.
Having started as a fascinating mix of science fiction and politics it becomes an action movie. Which was deliberate - Carpenter understands that if you’re going to deal with such subjects you’d be well advised to wrap it up in an entertaining package.
They Live is based on a short story by Ray Nelson, Eight o’clock in the morning.
Carpenter rather boldly cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper as his hero Nada. The casting works. Piper can't act but he looks right - he looks like a really ordinary working-class guy- and he has the right persona. And he knows how to deliver one-liners. He wrote much of his own dialogue, including some of the movie’s best lines. As is made clear in the 2013 interview with Carpenter included in the DVD he made a deliberate and conscious choice to tell the story from the point of view of the working class, and to have a hero who is very much working class.
Keith David is equally good as Frank. Meg Foster as Holly, a woman Nada is determined to save, has an odd screen presence but in a movie like this it works.
Carpenter was notorious for his absolute insistence on retaining creative control, even if it meant making low budget movies. They Live is certainly a low budget movie but Carpenter is a master at stretching a limited budget and making cheap movies that look great.
The movie was intended as a response to the 80s in general and to Reagan’s economic policies in particular. Despite this it’s a movie that doesn’t seem dated. It’s possibly more relevant today than it was in 1988. As Carpenter puts it in the accompanying interview, in many ways the 80s never ended. Consumerism and social control are arguably much bigger problems today than in 1988.
The aliens obviously represent the ruling class, interested in ordinary people solely as a source of profit. There’s nothing subtle about the satire here. It’s delivered with a sledge hammer.
Among other things They Live is famous for the epic fight scene between Nada and Frank. Piper had told Carpenter that if he wanted a really really good fight scene then it was going to need to be intricately choreographed and rehearsed. It was going to take a long time. Carpenter adjusted his shooting schedule to make sure that the time was available, and it pays off.
The influence of the classic 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is obvious. That film remains the greatest of all paranoia movies but They Live is a pretty respectable paranoia flick in its own right. As far as its politics is concerned it absolutely nails its colours to the mast. It’s an interesting movie that mostly works. Highly recommended.