John Carpenter’s late blooming fanboy fave most memorable for its lengthystreet fight scene between wrestler Roddy Piper and Keith David as its wicked story reveal of an alien race living among us only visible through specialized sunglasses, deserves to graduate from ‘cult’ status to a genuine masterpiece of science-fiction.
They Live (1988) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, George 'Buck' Flower
By Alan Bacchus
As a 13 year old seeing this film in the theatre having already been an idol of John Carpenter I came to idolize They Live – Carpenter’s downtrodden underclass characters unknowingly beaten down by big brother, not knowing that America’s capitalist evils come in the form of an alien race living freely among us.
The moment Roddy Piper puts on those glasses and reveals the monochrome world filled with subliminal messages designed to lull into a kind of social malaise in order to aid their eventual global takeover was as dramatic for me as, say, Keanu Reeve taking the red pill and revealing his own imprisonment in The Matrix.
While the Wachowski Bros toiled in a world of bloated pyrotechnics John Carpenter’s grassroots method of storytelling I admire more to this day. Looking back on the picture, in high definition, in its glorious widescreen form with its rich and grainy late 80’s cinematography They Live feels better and more relevant now than it ever was.
They Live fits in so well to Carpenter’s body of work, his influences and his unique technical aesthetic. It comes at the end of a remarkably productive and successful phase in his career. If we begin with Assault on Precinct 13, then Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, not excluding his dalliances of the still laudable Starman and two acclaimed MOWs, it’s a 12 year period of 12 terrific films. Inevitably great filmmakers lose their edge, or tap out creatively, and arguably They Live was his last great film.
Look closely and a clear narrative and stylistic through line can be seen through all these films, including They Live; Carpenter’s reverence for George Romero and Night of the Living Dead, Hitchcock, his working class sensabilities as relates to his characters and the notion of a collective conscious as his antagonist rather than a single villain.
In the opening 30mins or so, Carpenter with supreme confidence builds up his narrative with a consciously slow pace. His electronic blues music cue feels like a metronome pulsing with the slowest of beats. This rhythm cleverly establishes the melancholy hypnosis of sorts his characters find themselves in. Roddy Piper, his hero, referred only as ‘Nada’ in the final credits, walks into Los Angeles with only his backpack, unemployed and looking for work. His sullen disaffection in speaking to his employment agent is a small but brilliant scene. After finding construction work and ingratiating himself to Keith David’s wonderfully grumpy Frank character he finds himself in a homeless trailer park of sorts.
Carpenter’s depiction of these salt-of-the-earth characters is remarkably honest and genuine and showcases his connection to American class struggle.
Carpenter peppers this long setup with a series of wonderful teases and a brooding sense of dread hanging over his characters. Raymond St. Jacques’ blind street preacher character orates his paranoid prognositications with the same kind of tense caution as John Houseman’s rivetting campfire story at the opening of The Fog. Same with Piper’s sociopolitical conversations with David, ‘the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.’ The adversary to these characters isn’t a single malevolent character but a force of evil signified by the LAPD who periodically raid the compound and its neighbouring church.
It all leads up to, of course, the disbursement of the shelter leaving the curious Piper with only a box of sunglasses, which, when he puts them on reveals the monumental alien conspiracy at play. It’s a marvelous story turn, turning Piper into a working class superhero extraordinaire, blowing away those framalihyde aliens with his shotgun and a smile.
His relationship with Frank gets consummated of course by their ridiculous street fight, but its association with the very strange Meg Foster who piercing blue eyes and unemotive stare which really gives us the creeps. All the way until the end Carpenter masterfully mixes raucous action, comic book humour and delicious scares and stings. It’s all entertaining as hell.
What resonates most though is the strong political statement made through his disarming cinematic flare. They Live fits in well with the prevailing attitudes in the zeitgeist at the time: the evils of Reaganomics and the dramatic rise in urban crime. And we can’t help but think of its cinematic connection to the great sci-fi films of the 70’s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Planet of the Apes series as well as the most revered political paranoia films such as Three Days of the Condor, All the Presidents Men, The Marathon Man and The Conversation. They Live admirably holds up admirably against any of these pictures.