“There’s nothing available for you right now”
To (belatedly) honour the passing of the great wrestling talent Rowdy Roddy Piper, I rewatched his main and best starring role: They Live. Is there a better example of 80s cult/sci-fi/B-Movie than this film by John Carpenter? Yes, it may be rough around the edges. The script may not be up to scratch. To be honest, it’s a little bit trashy at times. But as a satire on capitalism and a throwback to the B-Movies of the 1950s, it’s almost unparalleled in its time. Carpenter meant for it to be a critique of Reaganomics, and as we are still living in the society that Reagan/Thatcher created, the satire and the themes are still relevant today.
Nameless drifter (played by Rowdy Roddy Piper) is a down-and-out, hardworking man who can’t find a job. In a city where the skyscrapers dominate the landscape, he struggles to find a job. There’s poverty all around him, in the slums that he finds refuge in, even though the skyscrapers ooze wealth. He stumbles across a small rebellion, against what he doesn’t know. That’s until he puts on a special pair of sunglasses…and sees the truth. Aliens have invaded earth, and are using subliminal messages and the TV to subtly take over the planet. They are among us, they look like us, but only those with the special sunglasses can see through their disguises and the messages they hide behind posters and magazine covers…it’s up to Piper to save the world!
Instantly, it’s a great B-movie premise. The aliens aren’t using force to invade; they are taking over hearts and minds. There’s little resistance, as people sleepwalk into an invisible dictatorship. There are hints before Piper puts the glasses on; the preacher shouting that “they use their mouths to deceive us,” the TV commercial about a woman hoping that she’ll find fame on TV one day. There’s the broadcast that invades normal TV programming that claims “…we are only focused on our own gain.” Piper can’t see what’s in front of him; the poverty and strife among the small percentage of rich people. “I believe in America,” he says to Frank, a fellow construction worker. Frank is cynical, pessimistic: he talks of “The golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s only when Piper goes down a one-way street and puts on the special sunglasses that he sees the truth…
“They are dismantling the sleeping middle classes”
The film, up to that point, is purposefully slow. However, as soon as Piper puts on the glasses, the pace is ramped up a notch. He literally sees the world in black and white. Instead of a poster about computer programming, he sees the stark word OBEY written. Instead of a poster about the Caribbean and a woman in a bikini, he sees the message “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT,CONSUME, and others commands dominate the landscape even more than the skyscrapers. My personal favourite is “THIS IS YOUR GOD” written on money. He sees the aliens without their human disguises. Yes, they look a little silly, but the whole scene (and movie premise) is a throwback to the 1950s B-Movie. They resemble a rotting corpse, a rotting human (which is essentially what they are). The sunglasses are Piper’s key to discovering that society is a lie. It’s all a cover-up designed to control us and keep people in their place. It’s simply a brilliant critique of 1980s society, and thus, our present society.
The film, as a whole, isn’t smooth running, however. It is fairly slow to get off the ground, like I mentioned before. Piper suddenly becomes a man of few words to a man of ‘generic action movie actor’ one liners. Apart from Piper, the actors/actresses don’t make much of an impression. Piper carries the film; his career is almost defined by his one-liner “I’ve come to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” He impresses as the true American, hoping that hard work will reap rewards someday. There are some creaks in his performance, but they are few and far between. Script-wise, it veers rapidly from memorable lines to generic plot exposition. The elongated fight scene between Piper and Frank is both ridiculous and a lot of fun. Featuring unending punches and absurd wrestling moves, tt can either be seen as unnecessary, or a fight that proves that fighting is pointless; they are both as big and strong as each other. Of course, the latter point is undermined as violence is used against the alien invaders (but, I guess, the point sticks a little…).
“It’s business…that’s all there is”
However, as a whole, it sticks together quite well. There’s even some appreciated fourth wall breaking when alien movie critics deride John Carpenter for his focus on sex and violence. Right from the following speech from the man who narrates the pirate TV broadcast, the film had me gripped: “The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices…” It’s as true today as it was in 1988! Yes, a lot of things have changed in nearly thirty years, but the chilling relevance of this satire to today’s society says that fundamental things haven’t changed. There’s dictatorship in democracy, totalitarianism in advertising. A great premise carried out very well, a commanding performance by Piper (along with some great one liners), and over-the-top action, They Live represents the end of Carpenter’s era of brilliance. OBEY, CONSUME, SUBMIT, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT…
VERDICT: 8/10. A supreme satire on 1980s society that is still relevant today, They Live embraces the concept of a B-Movie to give us a very good, but flawed, slice of science fiction that asks us to put on sunglasses and see the world in black and white.
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