1980s, 2/4, Action, John Carpenter, Review

They Live

They Live (1988) - IMDb

#18 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.

My tastes in movies are pretty mundane, I think. Almost everything a movie fan is “expected” to like, I like, and most things I’m not “supposed” to like I don’t. It’s definitely not some effort to fit in with a particular set of movie fans (most of my movie conversations cheerfully take place with people who have vastly different tastes than I do), it’s just how my tastes align. That being said, I’ve never been able to see the real appeal of They Live. I’ve seen this twice now, and I surprisingly had pretty much the exact same reaction now as I had the first time I saw it about fifteen years ago. I was kind of indifferent to it. There’s entertaining stuff, but what this movie is really remembered for is about a twenty-minute section in the middle of the film, and I think that’s because the movie outside of those twenty minutes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

There are interesting parallels between Carpenter’s 1988 film and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In both, a man, detached from anything permanent, arrives in a new city to take a job. Both end up finding their cities overrun with people that disgust them, and both end with the central characters taking loaded guns to exact justice. In Scorsese’s tale, it’s told from a place of depression. In Carpenter’s it’s told from a place of pure rage. Emotions are strong places to tell stories from, but they also have this tendency to driving the writers away from the less interesting parts of building a narrative like structure. It’s all about the core emotion, and anything else tends to get pushed aside. Come and See is an example of a great film born from pure rage, put together with care at creating a very specific emotional reaction that the film is asking the audience to share. They Live seems to operate under the assumption that everyone who watches it will share Carpenter’s emotion and objects of hatred from the get go.

It’s hard not to see this as part of Carpenter’s frustrating career, working hard within the system to deliver what people want and getting rejected when he puts himself out there (The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China), and I do think that’s part of the anger here (the talk of “selling out” feels key to that). However, Carpenter has said on more than one occasion that this film is about one thing, and one thing only: Reaganism, and boy did he hate Ronald Reagan. Can he make a great movie where the central point was hating Ronald Reagan and his economic policy? Yes, he very much could have. Did he? I don’t really think so.

The problem, I think, is that the bad guys are never really defined clearly. Nada (Roddy Piper), shows up in Los Angeles and finds a job at a construction site. He stays the night in a small homeless encampment across the street from a church where a pirate signal is going out trying to cut into the signal from a cable channel with a satellite dish (sure, okay). Very soon thereafter, the police show up and clear out the camp. Now, this is one of the keys to hating the antagonists of the film, and I’m going to be honest, it falls short. Going after a pirate signal isn’t the action that takes me immediately away from them. Clearing out a homeless encampment isn’t either. I think the level of violence is supposed to be a trigger, but, surprisingly, the violence is rather tame.

Separated from his nascent bit of civilization, Nada finds himself with a single pair of sunglasses that show him a hidden world just under the surface. Every ad, magazine, and sign is telling him to buy, consume, and obey. This is the stuff that the movie is known for, and it’s a great image. However, it’s also surprisingly pedestrian. Ads want you to consume? Yes, they do. It’s not exactly a secret. The more insidious part is that there are creatures among us, disguised as humans, and the sunglasses show Nada who they are. They’re ugly, looking more like decaying corpses (by design) than living creatures, and they control everything. After Nada takes out a few in a bank with a shotgun, he runs back to the one man who was nicest to him, Keith David’s Frank. News of Nada’s rampage have reached Frank, and he’s unwilling to meet with a murderer. Nada needs someone to confide in, and the two end up in the famous five-minute alleyway fight. The fight itself is brutal and realistic in ways that most fights aren’t with the two landing punches and needing time to recover from their injuries, but I find a hard time really getting into it because the ask from Nada is so small: to put on the glasses. I get the masculine urge to not bow to pressure on Frank’s part, but there are instances where he has the glasses up to his face and is this close to putting them on where he could see through them that it just kind of breaks up the fight for me a bit. I admire it technically, but I find it kind of frustrating to watch.

Then the movie stops being famous, and we get our confused third act. It’s confused because Carpenter isn’t really sure what we’re all supposed to be mad about. The great sin that gets repeated a couple of times in the latter parts of the film is humans “selling out” to the aliens. The homeless encampment is never mentioned as Nada and Frank get together with an underground cell of freedom fighters (sold out by a woman who really should not know where the meeting was happening because the movie never bothers to explain it), and then they end up at the alien headquarters where a human, recently accepted into the alien ranks somehow (this world building is…let’s just say incomplete), decides to show them around without any sort of guard. It’s here where the “sin” is really spelled out, the selling out, and it’s odd. I get it in concept, joining up with an oppressive, insidious, and covert alien force that’s trying to strip mine the planet, but it’s unsupported dramatically. A smarter script would have made that core goal of the aliens part of the first act instead of the homeless camp, but Carpenter was writing from a place of anger and didn’t think through his dramatic structure all that well. More ends up getting made of the selling out than the strip mining, and that’s why I can’t really separate this film’s basic point from Carpenter’s troubles with the studio system. He had tried to work in it, keeping who he was as an artist intact, but he struggled under the strictures of the organizations and ended up making compromised works that he couldn’t really stand behind fully. Going full corporate was selling out to a degree (ironically, his next film, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, is him fully selling out).

On a certain level, I get it, the appeal of the movie. The concept is cool and some of the key moments are executed with a certain appreciable style. However, the movie simply doesn’t work all that well as an actual story. It’s poorly built with jumps in logic and a muddled central point. Being creative purely through emotion has some advantages, but it also has serious drawbacks. If Carpenter hadn’t been promised carte blanche from the get go, he might have found the time to hammer out the script a bit more before shooting. As it stands, I find They Live an ultimately frustrating film experience that’s more important for a central twenty-minute stretch than actually an enjoyable or engaging story to latch onto.

Rating: 2/4

15 thoughts on “They Live”

  1. I have a little different take on that fight scene. Yeah, it’s brutal, but then it goes on and on past the point any fight like that would go on, and it really gets to be funny by being so over the top. And then the whole fight of that length is over something so trivial as wearing a pair of sunglasses, so I think the intent was to be humorous.

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    1. I would not be surprised if that was Carpenter’s goal. He does have that sort of black sense of humor that it could have the point. Next time I watch it, I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

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  2. There’s a great acronym Orson Scott Card created/popularized called M.I.C.E -Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. It is a way of talking about what a story is coming from or focused around. This is totally an Idea film. The Idea that there are secret aliens living among us, who are/have taking over society and acting as an elite cabal while everyone else is propagandized or made into an Outsider is….um…not exactly fiction. The only real fiction is making them aliens, I think.

    The sunglasses are a great hook. Most of the 70’s conspiracy movies, even the good ones, have a trouble showing the audience just how big or wide the conspiracy of the movie is. Carpenter nails that element with the glasses. It’s an early form of ‘wokeism’, once Nada is ‘awake’ he can’t go back to sleep and just keep on bumping along. Putting on the glasses forces you to confront the world as it really is and not as you think it is. You see the puppeteers pulling the strings. And you grab a shotgun.

    There’s a strange anti-authority streak in John Carpenter, though he mostly shuts up about it when a Democrat is in office, it’s real. You can’t trust the cops, you can’t trust the government, all you can do is trust yourself and act. It’s the same sort of idea that motivates Frank Castle or Paul Kearsey. It’s vigilantism and you’d think with his politics that Carpenter would be opposed to it, but, time and again, it comes up in his work. The individual has to act, not society, not the police. It’s like Carpenter’s search for truth undercuts his own politics, or his party politics at least.

    That’s the problem with They Live that you mention, how Carpenter hates Regan but he isn’t able to make an argument against Regan. He can’t make an argument in favor of anything except…fighting authority. He hates Regan for party politics reasons, I don’t think he can articulate what he dislikes about Reganism apart from some classist opposition to yuppies and greed. Carpenter isn’t a Marxist, he can’t even lean about that false religion to provide a countervailing vision of the world. He’s not a collectivist, he’s an individualist.

    Anyway, this is mostly just dumb fun and it’s really dumb when it’s mad about Regan. The fight with Keith David is dumb fun. The extreme fight over wearing the sunglasses isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s a shame Roddy Piper didn’t act more. He was one hell of a personality in professional wrestling, I find him to be a lot more fun and a much better actor than Duane Johnson is. I also appreciate that Nada dies at the end and that despite dying, he gets to succeed in his goal of ripping off all the masks.

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    1. I think my issue with taking this all as dumb fun is the obvious depth of feeling that it originates from. This isn’t just like a Marvel movie with fake stakes and a quippy lead, this is an individual artist exploring stuff that really, truly enrages him. It creates this tone across the whole film that keeps me from just hopping in as a rollicking good time.

      There comes an issue with this ill-defined sense of anger at something out there that’s controlling everyone where neo-Nazis were able to see it as a metaphor for their own issues with Jews. It’s so poorly presented with any firm ideas that it becomes far more open to interpretation than Carpenter ever imagined.

      That central 20 minutes does speak to a lot of people who feel like the country or society is out to use them rather than what they had imagined, which, I think, is why that central idea resonates with so many.

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  3. It is an uneven but great movie.
    On an emotional level, if the theme is alienation, feeling like you are somehow getting screwed, I don’t think it matters very much if the rhetoric is anti-Reganism. it might be anti-SJW today. It is the mood and feeling that counts (to me) not the ideological trappings.

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    1. I get the underlying point, but I just don’t really think the story actually gets it across very well. I have too many moments where I’m left scratching my head at the details.

      As I said, I know I’m a fair bit outside the standard view on They Live, and I’m okay with that.

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  4. The movie is amazing as a meme generator – part of why it endures is that it has such a knack for conveying a complex idea effortlessly through a visual.

    That said… it’s just too thin as a story. The real question is: What are the aliens doing that’s so bad? I mean at once point the glasses reveal a sign saying “Marry and Reproduce.” What’s wrong with that message?

    There’s a lot of possible ways you could go that would answer that question, but none of them are in the actual text. For all we know and are shown, the aliens could also be refugees just trying to live a quiet life. There are certain lines and moments that could be taken as clues, HOWEVER the problem is that the movie has deception and misdirection as a central theme. Meaning any time we are given a clue, there’s no real indication whether to receive it as genuine or another lie. (which is always a problem in these films – if you set up “lies” as a theme, then you have to put in extra work for your audience to accept other things as “truth”)

    There’s a short film someone did, not explicit but we all know it’s a remake of They Live:

    And in that they were at least able to provide a solid reason to distrust and fight against the aliens. Carpenter’s original didn’t need much, just one scene of unambiguous truth of the aliens being unambiguously evil and it would have cinched the whole thing.

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    1. Everything you say is what I think about the movie as well. It’s what makes the final act so weird, the great sin that actually gets talked about in the final thirty minutes is “selling out”. That’s it. That’s what is animating the character and what is supposed to animate the audience against the aliens. The only violence is clearing out a homeless camp and mere talk of stripmining the planet. An actual massacre of something would have been great to help dramatize why we’re supposed to hate these aliens.

      But, Carpenter was smarting from how Hollywood and studio executives had treated him over the previous ten years. He wasn’t interested in telling a story but in venting.

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      1. Oh yeah. I can definitely see how the movie ended up as it did – especially when you’re in a venting mood sometimes as a writer you can fail to grasp that what seems obvious to you is a little less obvious to the audience.

        Furious D (who used to be my favorite movie blogger) once wrote that the Cohen brother seemed to have mastered the system: They would make/produce a broad-audience, wide appeal film, then use the money & goodwill that made to then make a more off-beat, personal film. And so on they go back and forth over the years.

        It seems a shame Carpenter could not have mastered a similar technique. Though he may have been too ahead of his time. Seems like nowadays the streaming services would absolutely love to have quirky directors work for them.

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      2. Scorsese actually did this dance early in his career as well, but his personal films (really starting with Taxi Driver) started being successful enough to justify his next movie on its own. Carpenter just had the shittiest of luck, really. The Thing is his masterpiece, and it was a complete dud at the box office. Not just a disappointment, but an outright bomb. He didn’t deserve that at all.

        I can easily understand his frustration brewing and eventually boiling over with the studio system. Studio suits sound unbearable, and he just kept having to go crawling back to them to the point where he took on a Chevy Chase special effects vehicle. That’d break the spirit of most men.

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