They Live (1988)
We are currently living in a global recession and times are tough; unemployment is high, manufacturing is disappearing from the economic landscape, and several European nations are teetering on payment default which threatens to drop a full depression bomb on the global economy. Add to that the frustration many people feel when governments give bailout packages to save the financial sectors, only to watch gobsmacked when the CEOs give themselves raises. It’s certainly understandable why people would want to send a message to those in the 1%. But what if those who comprise the 1% are such monsters that they couldn’t care less and are happy to keep you down?
Now that I’ve fired you up, depressed you, it seems fitting to look at a film whose story world is eerily similar to our current situation of turmoil and uncertainty; fears of a declining economy, a culture of greed and conspicuous consumption common among Americans in the 1980s, but with a more sinister agenda. Such is the premise for John Carpenter’s They Live.
Times are tough all over America; the wealth gap between rich and poor makes the Grand Canyon look like the crack in your driveway you find every spring. Factories are closing down, unemployment is high, and there are shantytowns in every city across the States. Nada (played by wrestler Roddy Piper) is a quiet drifter who arrives in Los Angeles to find work at a construction site. Frank (Keith David), another worker, takes him to a nearby shantytown and soup kitchen for a hot meal and a bed for the night. Nada notices odd behaviour at the church across the street and when he investigates, discovers a pair of special sunglasses. When he puts them on, Nada realizes the population are bombarded with subliminal messages in all media content with imperatives like "Stay Asleep", "Obey", "Do Not Question Authority". Even scarier is that he is able to see those in charge of keeping humans subjugated. Here he becomes the man on the run and forces help from Holly (Meg Foster), a semi-femme fatale who may or may not be on Nada’s side.
The film wades through a certain amount of paranoia and uncertainty for its first half then changes gears into an action film as we get to enjoy Piper shoot his way through the rest of the film with Schwarzenegger-like one-liners. The best line in the film occurs in one particular scene when Nada enters a bank, fully armed. He looks upon the crowd and calmly announces, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum."
While not an initial commercial success, They Live debuted at #1 at the box office and grossed just over $4 million on its opening weekend, essentially breaking even with the production budget. Over time, the film has become a cult hit, with a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. That being said, I’m more impressed with director John Carpenter and what he does with what he has, namely small budgets, good stories and solid casting. Roddy Piper is not a great actor, though his theatrics carried him to stardom in wrestling’s heyday of the 80s. He does bring a ruggedness that makes you believe he has seen a lot in his time and been dumped on by life. Keith David, who was in Carpenter’s The Thing, is another fine choice; he holds his own in the not quite traditional sidekick role, and the two engage in a brutal five and a half minute alley fight that is arguably the best in film.
I also admire Carpenter for his sense of style; recurring techniques include minimalist lighting and cinematography, lots of static and steadicam shots, and distinctive often self-composed synthesized scores are synonymous with his films. Not many people might realize this is the same director who made Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China among others. He allows the audience to absorb what’s going on without having to resort to fast editing, sweeping camera shots and an abundance of expensive special effects; Carpenter was once quoted as saying he was influenced by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. This allows the audience to focus on characters and mise en scene, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Carpenter also isn’t shy about offering an opinion in his films either. With They Live, he examines the increasing commercialization of popular culture and politics in the 1980s; the ubiquitous advertising we have become so used to its almost strange and unsettling when we don’t see them. As a society we have bought into the perceived sense of urgency to continually buy the latest and greatest goods and services that not spending our money seems unthinkable. We have become so wholly immersed in a disposable world that it seems silly buying new is cheaper than having the older item repaired; if we easily discard an item that quickly, does that mentality extend into other aspects of our lives? Have relationships also become disposable? We don’t like our present partner, so we drop them and find a younger, better model?
It’s interesting how many of these ideas seem to ring truer than ever today with vulgar displays of greed (think Enron, Wall Street execs) on one side and those opposed (the Occupy movement) on the other. I suppose the only difference between our world and the film is that the strings in our world aren’t pulled by wealthy, fascist ghouls.
Or are they?