Friday, May 25, 2007

They Live (1988)

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

The world in John Carpenter's They Live is very similar to ours --- multi-racial with class structures divided by earning and spending capacity. The only difference is that in Carpenter's warped world, a huge conspiracy has successfully hidden the awful truth from humanity. Aliens whose heads are shaped like skinless skulls sporting insect-like eyeballs has transformed humanity into greedy, money-starved creatures by means of propaganda. Through television, these aliens have hypnotized humanity into thinking that the aliens look like one of us, and their un-creative and almost fascist statements are gorgeous ads and literature.

A wanderer (pro-wrestler Roddy Piper) walks into Detroit looking for a job. After searching in vain, he ends up working in a construction site and living in a tent city beside a mysterious church. He ends up discovering sunglasses that allow him to see the world for what it really is --- a society that mindlessly follows the uni-directional orders of those aliens walking, dining, and socializing among us.

Carpenter's motives are crystal clear: that consumerism is bad; avarice is evil; and that the true divide of humanity is between the controlling elite (the film's ugly extra-terrestials) and the suppressed working class. From the film's first few frames, you can tell Carpenter's disgust with society --- that the city of high rise buildings and expensive consumer products can live side by side with unemployment and poverty. The elite is overprotective of its powerful place in society, utilizing schemes and even the government to secure its place. The working class, however, is boiling to its limits, just waiting for that right time and that right opportunity to unravel to the world the elite's grand conspiracy.

At the center of the working class' battle is the newcomer, who with his determination and curiosity lands a more worthwhile job in ridding the world of its unwelcomed guests. Piper is most certainly not an actor --- he's all muscle, all steroids, all androgen without a granule of wit or cunning, which makes him perfect for that central role of the angry representative of the abused humanity. He is stoic in a way that rocks and stones are stoic; his emotionality doesn't pass through the thickness of his manly hide; which is why he can't have his way with Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) nor seduce her to his cause.

In the middle of Carpenter's modern-day fable on humanity's addiction with greed and consumerism is a prolonged fight between Piper and Keith David (who plays the wanderer's doubting sidekick Frank). There's an almost deadpan humorous quality to the dubious and indulgent exercise; there's that clinging feeling that the sequence simply doesn't belong to the pic but strangely, it fits right in and even deepens Carpenter's social commentary. Instead of merely being a critique on the elite's stronghold on society through its devious machinations, the film also tackles the working class' innate inability to unite. There's absolutely no question as to why the world has become such a feasible place for the aliens' enterprise --- it's because we are too willing or too involved with our individual concerns to pay true attention to what is happening elsewhere.

In the end, the aliens have become so ingrained in human society that it probably won't matter whether they look like walking skeletons. We've come to drink with them, have sex with them, eat dinners with them, transact businesses with them --- it's quite possible that we've become them. What good will that little revelation do but shock us momentarily. Will it shock us to leave the pleasures of avarice behind? I think not.


Piper said...

Good review. I have just posted about the They Live fight on my blog. I'm not sure I'm convinced that it truly had a place in the story other than Carpenter couldn't resist having Roddy and Keith have an all out brawl.

I like your thoughts on the ending and have never thought of it that way. That there's a distinct possibility, even a good one, that all of this was for not. There might be an initial shock but things will go on as they did before. Right or wrong.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks piper,

I don't think the brawl scene has a place in the story either and you're right about Carpenter maximizing Roddy Piper's talents. I just thought that it made the working class' deficits much more apparent --- that they are too busy "living" to consider everything else repugnant. Seriously, what bad will wearing sunglasses do, to deserve such serious fighting? It's just either Keith is too preoccupied with making dough for his family to even consider such playthings, or is too satisfied with his current state to accept the biting truth. Maybe Carpenter's being enamored with the reality of the brawl had a more lasting effect in the film.

dodo dayao said...


One of my favorites.This comes from Carpenter's "middle period" when he was making a lot of underrated but interesting movies - - -Prince of Darkness, is another I like - - -before he started going haywire again, eventually finding his footing with Cigarette Burns.

As for that much-ballyhooed fight scene, I always thought of it as the cinematic equivalent of feedback on a grungepunk record - - - noisy and intrusive and reckless and indulgent but you can't take your eyes off it, which is the effect every director wants for their films. In other words, I loved it! :)

Interesting interp on its subtext to the whole piece, though,oggs.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Dodo,

They Live is great great fun.