Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 22 February 2006
John Carpenter is a director of absolute economy, his filmography replete with, if not distinguished by, simplistic synthesizer and bass guitar scores, and foolproof, masculinized formulas. His career in genre filmmaking is so archetypal that it is with neither irony nor derision that his most celebrated film is named after a holiday, and with some generosity that two of his early films were remade with sparing variation from their original iterations.
These traits are pronounced in Carpenter’s name, as it regularly prefixes the titles of his films, appending each with a trademark for familiar thrills and fantasies. And each, for the most part, delivers: when women are the subject, they are empowered and durable; the men are quietly hostile but strangely asexual; the conflicts usually escalate in parallel threads between which Carpenter cuts in pedestrian fashion; and there is usually some cinematographic reference to Psycho. These are citations of Carpenter’s reliable assets, which are exalted in They Live, my favorite of his melds of 50s SciFi and horror.
Roddy Piper is cast as the lead, an anonymous drifter (credited as Nada) who comes upon an anonymous city in which little work is to be found. Piper is known predominantly as a professional wrestler (specifically, loser to Hulk Hogan in the original Wrestlemania); here, however, this experience fosters little appropriation other than what is arguably the most indulgent fight sequence in film, in which Piper and Keith David spend some eight minutes throwing (and receiving) wrecking ball punches. Otherwise, Piper is underutilized, for the most part relaying paranoia, sudden anger, or anxiety in a pair of eyes that concentrate on something out of the frame. In other words, he is unnaturally appropriate — Carpenter’s Bruno S. — precisely for his inexperience, his obvious inability to suit the role, or, in this environment, to provide an inability to conform within an extraordinarily homogeneous breed of human beings manipulated by a capitalist alien race.
They Live was released in November of 1988, coinciding with the end of Reagan’s extended tenure as United States President. This coincidence improves the analogy of the film’s critique of capitalism and the shelter afforded by an elite upper-class. Such analogy is not unapparent in Carpenter’s films (The Thing, for one, is a more pessimistic dystopia), but in none is it as lucid as it is here. But if this analogy to Reagan-era elitism is accepted, then the effort to diminish said elitism inherits the interpretation of Communism: Nada discovers a militant collective that loans its members guns and an agenda for mutiny. The members range in age, race, and sex, but these traits are incidental—given this army’s modest number, each participant is an identical asset. They Live is Cold War paranoia at its most lucid, leveraging American capitalism with its most logically abhorrent enemy.
The concept is manifested with equal derision in aliens whose faces resemble skulls that house two bulbous eyes. Their appearance is as repugnant as their practice, but neither is easily discerned. Herein, the realization is afforded via a pair of sunglasses that refract the countenance of conspiracy, revealing the aliens’ horrid faces, and the subliminal commands in billboards, magazines, signage, and even currency. In turn, the film hinges on epiphany: the aforesaid fight sequence is motivated by Nada’s intention for his compatriot to look through a pair of the magic sunglasses (which he does, upon his reception of a back suplex); and it closes in a gesture both hilarious and epic, which finds the rest of the world recognizing — for the first time — the subliminal commands that order its existence.