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They Live (1988) – Carpenter countdown #12

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By far the most political thing he's done, but its ambition is bigger than its budget allowed. Made at the end of actor Ronald Reagan's presidency, it grew in reputation during puppet George W Bush's.

Concept: 'I hate Ronald Reagan's policies'.

Roddy Piper walks into town looking for a construction job, but there's not much going. He passes a blind preacher telling it like it is – 'Why do we worship greed?' – and TVs with their promotion of greed. With no money until pay day, fellow worker Keith David points him to a squatter camp. Even there, there's a TV… which starts broadcasting a message from TV hackers saying that 'we are cattle, we are being bred for slavery', but the reaction of viewers is to complain of headaches. It turns out the signal is being sent from the church near the camp and before long the church is being raided by the police while the camp is bulldozed. Piper escapes, passing the police beating up the blind preacher. Returning to pick up anything that's left of his possessions, he looks into the church and collects a box, hoping it will be important or valuable. It turns out to just contain sunglasses, so throws all but one away… and discovers that they show the world as it really is. Ads cover words like 'obey', 'marry and reproduce' and 'no independent thought', while money has 'this is your god' on it. Oh, and some smartly dressed people look like aliens when seen through the glasses.

Before long, the aliens are talking into their wristwatches, 'I've got one who can see'. The police – two aliens – turn up, corner him in an alley and want to know where he got the glasses from. He kills them both – 'You bastards die just like we do' – and takes their weapons. More police arrive, so he ducks into a building.. which turns out to be a bank. It's time for the film's signature lines: 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.' He shoots the aliens there, but one is able to disappear. He kidnaps TV assistant Meg Foster to escape, but for some strange reason, she doesn't believe that he's fighting the forces of evil that can only be seen with sunglasses. Odd that. Before long, she's twacked him over the head and he's flying through a window.

His sunglasses were left in her house, and so he goes looking for the rest. Just after he's got them, David turns up to offer him some money. Obviously, Piper wants him to try the sunglasses. Thinking he's talking to a killer and not wanting to get further involved, David declines. There's a fight, with Piper trying to force them on him. Eventually, the glasses are on, and then there are two. They're contacted by the resistance who escaped from the church, and go along to a meeting. Foster is there too, but just as she apologises for not believing him, the wall is blown in and the police come in shooting at anything that moves. Piper and David get away, thanks to an alien device, and discover there's a network of tunnels underneath the streets. They walk into a banquet meeting for the rich ('income up 36% this year') and the aliens. Oh, look who's there: one of the homeless, now rather richer and in a tuxedo. Assuming that they have sold out too, he gives them a tour of the operation, from starport to the TV station which is beaming the signal controlling everyone. Time to destroy the transmitter, but there's one twist first. Eventually, the signal is stopped and everyone can see the truth.

What’s good: For a wrestler, Roddy Piper is a pretty good actor and in this is better than subsequent 'wrestler turned actors'. The highly scripted and faked world of professional wrestling probably helped, but he's clearly bringing personal experience to some of the role. Keith David, previously in The Thing, is as good as ever.

The fight. It lasts just over five minutes. As you can imagine just from the length, it's over the top in several ways. What makes it a bit special is the context – two friends getting progressively dirtier but realising that they are not, in fact, out to kill each other. At one point, Piper apologises for getting too nasty, but continues to go at him anyway. Apparently, it was rehearsed between the two for over a month.

The politics. Lines like 'We gave the steel companies a break. They gave themselves pay rises' ring just as true today as they did then, especially if you change it to the banks. So too the treatment of globalisation ('There ain't no countries any more') and corporate disregard for the environment (greenhouse gases are being used to change the planet to be more to the aliens' liking). We also see Los Angeles from a very different angle than usual – this is a city with a very large underclass, not just the angels.

The respect for the audience's intelligence. The sunglasses reveal section is almost wordless. Typical for a Carpenter script – Frank Armitage is a pseudonym – the difficult bits are skipped over in a simple way. 'I'm not too familiar with it myself' says their guide, and we accept that better than a minute's pseudo-scientific explanation or mystical crap (yes, The Matrix, I'm thinking of you!)

What’s not so good: The low budget really shows, particularly in the aliens who just have a zombie / bare flesh mask. The long-time Carpenter stunt co-ordinator played most of them himself, because he fit the main mask.

There are times when the intelligence is abandoned for an action scene.

Music: As with almost all of his 1980s films, it's composed and played with Alan Howarth. This one's a solid working class blues score.

Miscellany: Most of the homeless people in the film were really homeless – feeding and paying them was part of the political statement.

'We all sell out every day' was apparently a line from a studio exec who didn't see what the threat the heroes were fighting against was.

Unsurprisingly, getting permission to use any real ads or media in the film was almost impossible. Kudos to Control Data for being the exception.

Overall: Another one with more intelligence than in most Hollywood films. What it would really love to be is the 1980s equivalent of the 1950's Invasion of the Body Snatchers which used SF to show McCathy's America, or the 1970's The Parallax View which fit into the 'conspiracy at the heart of the US government' mould. Sadly, it's not quite there and the 1980's film which nailed the rich better was Society while RoboCop did the corporations. Even so, you'll never watch TV in the same way again. Especially the aspirational crap.

This was the last one with Larry Franco as producer as well as the last time the soundtrack was done with Alan Howarth. (Future wife and producer Sandy King was associate producer.) There's an argument that this is the last classic Carpenter and it's another one which IMDB users rate higher than the ones in my next batch. Apparently it's being remade, but flawed as this one is, I can't imagine a new one being better.

TL;DR As the situation it was talking about in the real world has got worse, this film gets better

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4/5

An informative and chatty commentary with Roddy Piper and a 'making of'.

DVD, the 'coming soon' Blu-ray, and soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 15th, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

One Response to 'They Live (1988) – Carpenter countdown #12'

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  1. I love "They Live" and am reminded to rewatch it, thank you!

    I adore the cheapness of it, too. (c:


    16 Jun 11 at 8:23 am

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