Friday, November 13, 2009

Reeling Backward: "They Live"

I'm continuing my journey through the John Carpenter oeuvre with some films I hadn't seen before, starting with 1988's "They Live."

It's kind of a cheesy flick with low-rent special effects. It stars Roddy "Rowdy" Piper, which probably tells you more about the quality of the filmmaking than anything I could say. That same year, the wrestling star made his masterpiece, "Hell Comes to Frogtown." This movie isn't quite as schlocky ... but man, it ain't good.

That said, the story does have some interesting themes that are worth commenting on, about a race of hidden aliens who are subtly taking over the world.

Piper plays Nada, a wandering average Joe who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. He lands a construction job and befriends Frank (Keith David again), who introduces him to a shantytown where he can live and eat.

Nada stumbles across strange activity at the church across the street, which is apparently the headquarters of a secret underground of humans fighting the aliens by broadcasting television signals with cryptic warnings. After the police brutally break up the place, Nada discovers a box full of sunglasses that allow one to see the world as it really is.

With the glasses on, the world turns a fuzzy black-and-white, and billboards and magazines are revealed to actually be Orwellian commands like "Obey," "Consume," "No independent thought" and "Marry and reproduce."

Even more alarmingly, a certain percentage of the human population are actually aliens with skull-like faces and spotted skin. Nada arms himself with an arsenal of guns and starts wiping out the aliens.

A few notable scenes: At one point Nada hides from the police in a bank. Wielding a shotgun, he announces to the stunned inhabits: "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum!" This, of course, has since became a very famous tough-guy line. Although Piper actually delivers it in a strangely stiff and robotic way.

And then there's the fight scene between Nada and Frank, which just goes on, and on, and on. And on. At one point you think they're done fighting, and the start it all up again. It gets to be a pretty nasty affair, with eye-gouging, hand-biting and crotch-pummeling. It's obviously in the movie to give Piper a chance to show off his 'rasslin' skills. The stated reason for the fight is that Nada wants Frank to try on the sunglasses, and he refuses. I don't know about you, but if somebody insisted that I try on some glasses, I might not like it, but it's not worth trading punches over. Of course, as soon as the fisticuffs are over, they're the best of chums again.

The title comes from a bit of graffiti scene in the movie, "They live, we sleep" -- which pretty much sums up the subtext of the whole movie. There's a distinctly anti-capitalistic streak in the movie, with a lot of talk about people fighting with each other over money and consumer items. A number of the humans have knowingly signed up to help the aliens, with riches as their reward. The basic theme is that American culture has devolved into a land of sheep lulled into a trance by television and advertising.

As heavy-handed as this stuff is, it's actually the most entertaining thing about "They Live."

1.5 stars

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