Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: "They Live" is Full of Cult Cinema Charm (Happy B'day, Keith David)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 105 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

John Carpenter’s They Live (1988)
Running time: 93 minutes (1 hour, 33 minutes)
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
WRITER: Frank Armitage (based upon a short story by Ray Nelson)
PRODUCER: Larry Franco
EDITORS: Gib Jaffe and Frank E. Jimenez
COMPOSERS: John Carpenter and Alan Howarth


Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, John Lawrence, Susan Barnes, Sy Richardson, and Wendy Brainard

The subject of this movie review is They Live, a 1988 science fiction film from writer-director John Carpenter. Carpenter wrote the film using the pen named “Frank Armitage.”

They Live is based on two works by science fiction author, Ray Nelson. The first is Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, November 1963) and the second is “Nada,” a comic book adaptation of the short story, produced by Nelson and artist Bill Wray (Alien Encounters #6 – April 1986). They Live follows a drifter who finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to discover that aliens have taken over the Earth.

In 2003, the pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly published a special issue devoted to what the staff considered the top 50 cult movies of all time, and John Carpenter’s They Live made the list. It’s easy to see why with a film on a low budget that only allowed for cheesy-looking monster makeup and low rent flying robots. Writing under the name “Frank Armitage,” Carpenter weaves a delirious B-movie thriller that mixes the kind of Golden Age pulp sci-fi aimed at juveniles and morons with hippy idealism, counter-culture rage, conspiracy theorists’ paranoia, and a healthy dose of the National Enquirer-inspired zeal.

Nada (Roddy Piper), a down-on-his-luck construction worker, wanders into a large metropolitan area (presumably Los Angeles) to find work. He discovers a pair of special sunglasses, that when worn, shows him that our colorful world is really a society overrun by ugly aliens. Those alien rulers bombard human minds through a radio signal with subliminal messages that encourages people to eat, sleep, obey, consume, reproduce, etc. Without the aid of the glasses, this world remains hidden. Nada convinces a fellow construction worker, Frank (Keith David), to join him, and together they seek human resistance fighters who are searching for the source of the mind-controlling signal.

Carpenter’s film was more than just a science fiction and horror movie; it was also Carpenter’s commentary on the greed and rampant consumerism of the late 1980’s that was coupled with a total lack of regard on many people’s part for the growing number of people slipping into unemployment and poverty. It’s easy to dismiss They Live, what with it’s delightfully campy elements: aliens as free enterprisers who keep the majority of humans as slaves while enriching humans who turn traitors, sunglasses that allow you to see the “real world” (a decidedly William Castle idea), and a professional wrestler as the lead, among other things. The film is so silly sometimes that it makes you squirm.

However, Carpenter was clearly having fun and working within the confines of his genre. When you listen to what his characters say, a lot of things make quite a bit of sense. Lots of things, like the ugly aliens, are metaphors, granted they make silly metaphors, but they are nevertheless metaphors. Maybe Carpenter sabotages his point by using this kind of story to grind his ax about America’s materialist culture, dog-eat-dog society, and the callousness of people toward the less fortunate, but still, only someone dead set against “seeing the light” would miss the point.

I absolutely like the film’s hard, low-budget edge and the menace and gritty determination of Roddy Piper and Keith David’s characters. It’s one of my favorite Carpenter films, and it’s held up for me over repeated viewings. I also have to give credit to any film that makes a shantytown one of its major settings.

7 of 10


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