Monday, June 11, 2012

They Live Review - I'm confused

John Carpenter is an odd director. He made some excellent early films, then had an unfortunate run of movies sunk by either poor plots or bad dialogue. If I were mean, or a pessimist, I'd say he lost his knack for making good pictures. But I just can't disparage the maker of The Thing, Escape From New York, Halloween, and Big Trouble in Little China. Which makes They Live kinda weird, because...

I do like that line, tho.

First, you must know that They Live is a sci-fi/action movie with a decent budget and fx. Its wildly inventive story: a decent construction worker in LA has fallen on hard times. While camping out in a temp-worker shanty town, he finds a pair of shades - sunglasses that show subliminal ads are on tv, print ads, and the radio! And some people look like hideous aliens! This man spends the remainder of the movie fighting the ETs.

Second, you must know that They Live dedicates time to being loudly... libertarian and borders onto full-on populism. It's weird to see a B-movie philosophize, much less so overtly. The fact that it stars Roddy Piper, a pro wrestler, means that TL is hyper-absurd in pandering to the downtrodden everyman.

It also features one of the most stupid/ awesome/ ridiculous fight scenes of all time:


They Live actually kinda-sorta works, and is well-regarded as a cult film - partly from 80s nostalgia and partly because this movie is just fun. You might enjoy it, but it can't be a guilty pleasure for me because it's simply not good enough. No offense to lovers of cult films - I'm a big fan of many, myself - but I have no reason to care about the characters, the dialogue's often poor, and many parts simply could've been executed better.

Mercifully, it's got all the hallmarks of good 1980s action. Not great action (e.g., Commando), mind you, or good action as part of a really well-conceived film (e.g., Midnight Run) - it's just excessive in keeping with that decade's style, and full of elements that place it firmly in its time. This is flashback-in-a-can; or, rather, in-a-movie.

Carpenter directed & wrote this 1987 pic with a pro wrestler (Roddy Piper) as the lead, Nada ("nothing" in Spanish). Strolling into town with a big travel pack and a honky-tonk theme, Nada soon finds himself in a room where a large sign has the heading "Job Opportunities" - and is totally blank underneath. Next, he's in a park, where a black preacher rails against modern excess; but soon, a pair of cops arrive and hustle the priest away.


For a man of action, Roddy does a lot of walking and sitting - he stares at a kid glued to the tv in a store window. Then he's in an alley at night, where he stares at someone in a rocking chair while they watch a badly-written soap. It's very close to creepy stalking of the strangers around, but it always feels so silly that it's more like Nada's curious rather than intrusive.

Thankfully, we're soon on a construction site, where Nada asks for a job. He's told it's union-only, and we see (naturally) the employed guys are playing craps and doing anything but work. Shortly, a real man comes onto the site: at the day's end, super-co-worker Frank (the amazing Keith David), asks if Nada has a place to stay and offers to walk him to a local shelter.

This is when TL injects its first major political message. It's one thing to see people zoning out on tv, or hear that lots of jobs are being sent overseas - it's another thing to see a sprawling Hooverville of shoddy shelters. It's easily in site of downtown LA. Oh, and Frank isn't just walking by - the dude lives there with his family.

This is actually the best of it.

The social comments aren't awful, per se. It fits, as back then, industrial (and other) jobs were outsourced and factories were closed often. Folks with no education were hit hard by the 1970's and '80's economic downturns. But the lead is best known for his suplex move, it's still a B-action film that intentionally hearkens back to 50's alien movies, and the poly sci material is far too heavy-handed and clich├ęd. Back to the scene:

Staring across the water and looking at skyscrapers in the near distance, Frank expresses his frustration. As always, Keith David sells his character and his lines quite nicely: He struggled to support his family - struggled and failed. Nada actually replies to this thusly: first he claims to have faith in the USA. Next, he states that he pays his dues. And then, I ---- you not, Nada says "I follow the rules."

The problem isn't Piper's acting - that's just fine, here. But, it's one thing to have a message; that's laudable, especially in violent genre fare. It's another thing altogether to make a point with the energetic shallowness of a precocious hopped up on sugar. Polemics that are kind of trite don't fit well into a B-movie where aliens are cartoonishly-evil, or seem to have already corrupted everyone(?) with nothing more than bribes. In the same vein, the subliminal ads are a cool idea - some are funny or chilling, but most are so overly-blunt or simplistic that the clearly can't advance its agenda well.

I like the fact that John Carpenter was exorcising his disgust at the 1980's proliferation of commercialization. I like that he felt that the country was selling out its future and its citizenry, promoting both consumerism and laziness/social apathy. And I really like that he would try to make these points in a B-movie with a wrestler for a lead. I just wish that he'd made his points more cleverly and effectively. It's just that some sloppy writing and the film's indulgence in excess combine to make the finished product unsatisfying.

Even when the action does propel the movie forward, it's too over-the-top, especially as I don't think Carpenter was being ironic. Nada is pulled into the alien resistance (against those who are taking all the jobs, of course) after his temp-community is demolished by... basically, a super-Gestapo. I guess it's a thematic match - as is the line, "we're their Third World" - but oh, come on.


And remember above, when I said Nada does a lot of sitting and walking? Yeah, he pretty much watches his adoptive home get bulldozed, then just runs. God, I don't even think he tried to save that one helpless kid that was caught up in the devastation.

The later action sequences are actually somewhere between nice and good enough. There are sufficient extra elements in the story to suggest that someone invented a rich little world here. Things and people exist without being explained, and have an improbable credibility. It's like The Running Man in these ways. A lot of people could've gone in a different direction than Carpenter chose, and many would've done it worse, but this is what the audience got in the end.

Still, the story plays out, and it can be very fun - if you expect little intelligence. TL gets credit for its commitment to many absurd and silly ideas, and a tale straight out of classic 1950's sci-fi (well, a 1960's novel actually, and also a comic). Yet it's got big plot-holes, the bad guys are overdone, and I must wonder: why do the glasses alter your hearing?

In the end, all I can say about They Live is that low expectations and a sense of humor are important here. All I can say about the warrior-poet/brick-layer Nada is that he lived as he died: flipping the bird at wrong-thinking people (which is quite funny, in fact). He was a selfless construction worker, and that makes me think "carpenter," and then potential Jesus parallels are also available.

It's like a normal, silly-til-its-enjoyable dumb B-movie, but on uppers.

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