They Live (1988), or Put On The Damn Sunglasses!

7 03 2009
Piper takes the alien to the turnbuckle, and OH MY GOD! Hes going for a suplex!

"Piper takes the alien to the turnbuckle, and OH MY GOD! He's going for a suplex!"

Hello, hello! Another day, another review! Today, on this fine Saturday, I decided to take a look at a John Carpenter movie. Not one of his well-seen Big Trouble In Little China-type movies, though. This one went under the radar for a lot of people, and I think it’s time to blow the lid off this great movie about 80’s consumerism and mindless consumption.

It all starts in L.A. with a guy named George Nada. He is big and beefy, but lonely, homeless, and broke. He goes from construction site to construction site to try and have enough money to feed himself. At one construction site, he makes the acquaintance of a fellow worker named Frank, who helps him out by taking him to a nearby shantytown. There, he gets food and a place to sleep from the friendly locals. Things are looking up for ol’ George when he starts noticing strange things going on at a church across the street from the shantytown. He makes a mental note and decides to investigate in the morning. What he finds is that the church is actually a front for some odd organization. He doesn’t know what their agenda is; all he finds is a secret compartment with boxes and boxes of sunglasses inside. He gets out of there quickly to avoid detection from whoever is making these things. That night, the police come and bust through the church and destroys the shantytown. George knows this must have something to do with the strange organization in the church, so in the morning he goes to investigate again but finds the church empty. Using the secret compartment, he takes a box of sunglasses, thinking that there has to be something to these for the police to raid the place. When he puts on the sunglasses, everything goes black and white. It seems strange enough at first, until he starts walking onto the street. With the glasses on, magazines and billboards all give out subliminal commands like “OBEY” and “CONSUME”, which cannot be detected without the glasses. And stranger than that is when he looks at people. Some look the same, but others have hideous and alien skull-like faces. Nada has uncovered something bigger than he ever could have guessed, but not everybody wants this secret to be uncovered, especially these humanoid creatures who look just like you and me without the sunglasses. What are these things that can only be seen using these mysterious glasses? Can Nada convince anyone else of the power of the glasses and the threat of the creatures without sounding like a crazy person? And if he can, can they do anything about it, or is it too late?

You, know, I honestly didn’t think I would like this movie, but I was proven wrong, much to my delight. It has its obvious cheezy moments, but John Carpenter deserves credit for creating a great, if not obvious, allegory for the sell-out culture of the 80’s. He said he was inspired to do this movie simply by watching TV, and I can see where he might get that concept. If the 60’s free-love ideology acquiesced in the 70’s to an I-just-wanna-feel-good ideology, then in the 80’s that acquiesced to an I-just-wanna-make-money ideology, and that can be felt in a lot of aspects in 80’s pop culture. This was a reaction to that, and it succeeds in a number of ways. All the subliminal messages beneath the printed word, the creatures’ use of television to keep people subdued; it is the perfect way to keep a population asleep and unable to fight back when one tampers with their window to the world outside of their day-to-day.

Roddy Piper is George Nada in one of his early film roles actually nails it. I can’t believe it sometimes how genuine he is. You really pull for this down-on-his-luck guy who gets caught up in something much bigger than him (which says something, because Piper is a mountain of muscle). Don’t get me wrong, though; he’s still a badass in this role. Especially in one scene where he busts through a bank filled with the creatures and says the classic bon-mot, “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” What does that mean? I don’t know, but I like it. Keith David is also memorable as Nada’s friend Frank. He is an equal to Nada, and you don’t ever feel like he is just some second banana. He is very real, and had enough dimensions as a character to keep me focused. I also love the way he growls his lines out in that Keith David I-just-gargled-with-asphalt kind of way. Meg Foster is Holly, Nada’s love interest, and she is not very good. Every time I see her on screen she annoys me in some form or fashion with her lack of interest in the role. If you cannot keep up with an actor whose day job is grabbing guys in spandex underwear, you might need to rethink your career.

Carpenter is a good director for this kind of work, and while I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with him on certain directorial choices (Memoirs of An Invisible Man? Really?), I think that on the whole he has proven himself to be great at horror, reliable at anything else. This is not a horror movie per se, but he raises the bar on what could otherwise be cheezier than it already is. In the tradition of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, we have characters desperate to be believed by other characters, and I think we all feel that desperation at some point and therefore it becomes a more relatable experience. Carpenter understands this, and although there are some goofy moments there is still that more dire undercurrent.

So, I would rent it this weekend. What else do you have to do? Spend time with your family and friends? Fuck that! Watch a movie instead. It builds character. They Live is a cult movie with enough vigor to actually be taken seriously long enough to really enjoy the moments when it lets you laugh. I enjoyed it, to my surprise, and maybe you will too. I give it 7 1/2 mountains of muscle out of 10!

See you tomorrow for another Roddy Piper movie, Hell Comes to Frogtown!