Thursday, October 31, 2013
They Live (1988)
The Movie: A drifter from Colorado (wrestler Roddy Piper of Hell Comes to Frogtown), who we never actually hear the name of but whom the movie credits call “Nada”, wanders into Los Angeles looking for work. As he explains to the lady at the unemployment office, construction in his neck of the woods dried up with the economic problems, and he has a family to support. Unfortunately, even here work is incredibly hard to find. However, he eventually finds a construction site willing to take on new employees.
It says a lot about the economy that Nada is far from the only homeless worker on the site. Fortunately for him, however, he is quickly befriended by Frank (Keith David of the Thing and Pitch Black), another worker, who leads him to a shantytown run by a community activist named Gilbert (Peter Jason of In the Mouth of Madness). However, once he’s there he starts to notice some strange things. There’s a blind preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) in the park exhorting the locals to wake up to the evil in their midst; but the way he speaks makes it sound like far more than just your typical theological evils. Later at the campsite, when the residents are trying to watch television, the broadcast is hacked by a man (John Lawrence) speaking dire warnings about mind control and those in power. His warnings aren’t too different from those given by the blind preacher Nada saw; in fact, Nada notices said preacher standing in back and talking along with the broadcast word for word.
Nada has also noticed that Gilbert and his associates spend a lot of time at an old church across from the shantytown; and among other things, choir practice seems to go on until the wee hours of the morning. Curious, he investigates and finds that something’s not quite right. The choir is actually just a recording being played over speakers, and the rest of the church’s interior is given over to equipment to send pirate broadcasts and make, something. Nada doesn’t have enough time to check the contents of all the boxes, but he manages to hide one away for later. It’s a good thing that he does; the church’s inhabitants seem to have attracted some kind of official attention and that night a horde of policeman raid the area. They strip the church bare, level the shantytown, and beat the living snot out of everyone they can get their hands on; terminally in the case of most of those associated with the church.
The next day Nada retrieves the box he stashed and looks inside. He’s puzzled to find nothing but sunglasses. However, it’s when he puts the glasses on that he’s really stepped in it. The glasses drain all color out of the world and show that a lot is going on that Nada has never even suspected. Everywhere there are subliminal messages like “work, marry, reproduce,” “no free thought,” and “stay asleep.” Devices for further enforcing said messages, as well as general observation, are also everywhere. Worst of all, Nada notices that certain people, namely the ones with obvious wealth and power, aren’t actually people, but hideous, ghoulish looking beings. Unfortunately, Nada lets slip that he can see what’s really going on, and winds up on the run for mass murder. He manages to get Frank to see it as well, and the two men go looking for answers and a way to fight back.
“They're free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.”
For some reason, lately I’ve been wanting to see some really good 1980s satire that does feel dated. Unfortunately for that ambition, this movie ain’t it. Even now, over twenty years after it was made, They Live feels entirely current and relevant; the only exceptions to this being a few hair and fashion styles that we see.
John Carpenter made They Live to show his disgust at the political and economic results of the Reagan Era, results that have only grown worse as time goes on. The aliens present a metaphor for the relatively small handful of the uber-rich who have been working since that time, all too successfully, to dismantle the middle class and claim everything for themselves. And, through near complete control of the media, they’re able to essentially keep everyone “asleep” while they do it.
The economic hard times the characters are dealing with are the recession that came at the end of the 1980s due to the popping of the latest financial bubble. Sound familiar? These things are far from uncommon in our history, and always end up the same way. Another thing that rings true is how the desperation of the times serves those in power. Note how our heroes start out so desperate to get by that they do their best to ignore what’s going on even when it’s blatantly suspicious. Nada’s “I still believe in America” speech, Frank’s insistence that Nada “let it alone” whenever he points out something peculiar; these are people who’ve lost so much already, that they’re willing to do just about anything to hold on to what little they’ve got.
Another aspect of the movie that should seem all too familiar if you pay attention is the subliminal messages our hero notices. With the exception of one message lifted from the original short story (“Work 8 Hours, Sleep 8 Hours, Play 8 Hours”), one of the few aspects of They Live that does feel dated, the subliminal message our hero notices are all message that are constantly being thrown at us, even if we don’t notice them consciously; and even in the contexts through which Carpenter depicts them. “Conform” and “Obey”; everyone, from politicians to corporations, is constantly urging us to go along with the crowd and preying on our insecurities about fitting in. Also, it’s come to my attention that ever since 2001 American flags have been a lamentable inevitability in just about any kind of advertisement; the point, of course, playing upon one’s sense of patriotism and suggesting that buying said project, whether it be a politician or an insurance plan, is aiding the country (and that if you don’t buy it you’re a Bolshevik weenie). “Buy Stuff”; that’s the message all advertisements send. I can’t even go on line anymore without a buttload of popups telling me I need to shell out my money for something because I cannot possibly live without it. “Stay Asleep”; so much of our “news” is actually propaganda or distraction. I guess “Watch Television” falls under that as well.
Then there’s the part where Nada looks at some cash through the sunglasses and sees the message “This is Your God.” In a nutshell, I think this sums up the issues that Carpenter is putting on display here, and so much of what is wrong with America in general. If the U.S. does have a state religion, it would have to be the worship of Mammon. Think about it, money is pretty much the be-all and end-all of all the goals we are supposed to set for ourselves; and the basis by which we are taught to judge people. It’s also the basis of all our wars, whatever the official justification is. Seriously, read some history, nearly all of our wars in the past century or so have been fought because of some financial interest or other. And worst of all, having an obscene amount of money ensures that you can get away with just about anything. I’d get arrested for trying to bribe a politician, but these large corporations can get away with giving them large amounts of money to vote a certain way and calling them “campaign contributions.” Likewise, there’s something very wrong with major financial institutions being able to commit capital crimes, hurt a lot of people, nearly destroy the economy, and yet still successfully demand handouts and tax cuts from the government. A while back I came to the conclusion that Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like a Hole is a far more appropriate national anthem than the Star-Spangled Banner; and I don’t think I’ll be changing my opinion on that anytime soon.
Finally, there are several scenes that just look prescient; although it’s probably more due to the fact that history goes in cycles and the human race keeps making the same damn mistakes over and over again. The scene where the police are leveling the camp bears a very strong resemblance to stories I’ve seen on the news about the police dealing with the Occupy movement. When Nada and Frank stumble upon a fancy dinner where one of the aliens is addressing all the wealthy human collaborators, it could be a fundraiser given by the Koch Brothers, Mitch Romney, or any one of the all too many demagogues for the Cult of the Free Market. And when Nada sees a politician on T.V. who’s actually one of the aliens, the speech he gives sounds way too familiar.
There is one major flaw in They Live. Halfway through, the movie changes tone completely and suddenly becomes another big, dumb action movie. This puzzled me the first time I saw it, but in a recent review from El Santo of the site 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting he points out that it’s John Carpenter’s satirizing of the action films of the period. After reading that, it made more sense when I saw it again; and I will confess that some of it is very clever. Unfortunately, the action elements go against the tone set by the first half of the film. The aliens fall too easily, and the conclusion feels forced. This undercuts much of the sense of creepy paranoia the movie builds up on at the start.
Overall, though, They Live is still worth seeing. Excepting the tone change it is very well made. More so, it has a very important message that has only become more relevant in twenty-something years since it came out. So do yourself a favor and watch this movie; then put on the sunglasses and take a good, hard look at the world.