Saturday, December 27, 2014

They Live

The admittedly wild premise, or at least the germ of ideas of John Carpenter's 1988 sci-fi film THEY LIVE seems less improbable as the years pass. In fact, the same could be said of 1976's NETWORK, 1981's LOOKER, and so on. Society has continued, ever faster now, to deliver on the grim scenarios imagined by those who "saw the writing on the wall." And obviously not just on the big screen. Upton Sinclair and Aldous Huxley certainly described worlds that frightened readers, many of whom were doubtless reassured (perhaps by themselves) that "it could never happen".

THEY LIVE follows a drifter referred to as "Nada" (played by loudmouth wrestler Roddy Piper) who begins to learn that Los Angeles, probably the entire world, is under the dominion of aliens. The kind from another planet. There have been no bloody coups d'état, no hostile occupations. Rather, assimilation. Then, control.  Mind control. A creation of the illusion of contentment. Subconscious commands for a blueprint for living. A totalitarian blueprint.

A new arrival in the City of Angels, Nada takes a construction job and lives at a mission/soup kitchen as he tries to get on his feet. He begins to notice some curious things about its organizers, the church they use. One day Nada discovers in the back of that church a box filled with ordinary looking sunglasses. When he slips them on he sees another layer; the world as it really is. Everything in black and white (get it?). Several faces in downtown crowds now appear skeleton like. Aliens, many of them.  Words like SLEEP, CONSUME appear on magazine covers. MARRY AND REPRODUCE is seen on the side of a building.  When someone holds currency the glasses reveal THIS IS YOUR GOD printed on it.

The mission leaders are actually rebels, fighting to make the public aware of the alien presence. They hijack a satellite signal and beam images of a man warning, ranting of the danger of inactivity, complacency. This does not sit well with the local cable network, one of whom's assistant directors (Mage Foster) is kidnapped by Nada. But she, and the film itself, will prove to be full of surprises.

THEY LIVE is clutched tightly by its sizable cult. It is raved about so much you just know it will be a letdown when you finally see it for yourself. But I was consistently amused by Carpenter's movie, which he also wrote and co-scored. The first half hour is downright deliberate as it introduces the characters and sets up the story; this is not a film that puts us in a gunfight from the word go. Time is actually taken to develop its ideas.  Those only seeking good ol' exploitation may be bored.

Never fear, invisible audience, this is still a B-movie. There are bloody shootouts and chases for the dedicated. Also, the film's action centerpiece, a fistfight between Nada and one of his co-workers, Gilbert (Peter Jason) as Nada tries to convince his bud of the takeover by making him put on those damned glasses. Gilbert resists. And resists. And resists some more. The brutal, often hysterical fight goes on for over five minutes and is easily one of the lengthiest brawls in cinema history. And Nada frequently tosses off silly lines like, "I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum." Also, "Brother, Life's a bitch, and she's packin' heat!" The alien makeup is, less face it, pretty cheesy.

But THEY LIVE is not as patently campy or adrenalized as I would've expected.  It's unusually thoughtful for an '80s B-movie, with things to say about consumerism and class warfare that are as astute as many straight faced movies, as well as the more wild offerings like REPO MAN.  THEY LIVE was released during an era when most Hollywood movies reflected the conservative mood and zeitgeist. Its criticisms of capitalism, Reaganomics, and the like really set it apart.  And that final scene is a real gem, managing to dot an "I" on its fine points and give the peanut gallery a money shot.

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