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Posts Tagged ‘They Live’

My usual line when it comes to John Carpenter and his career (as previously articulated here, quite a few times I expect), is that he basically did it backwards – starting with the acclaimed, massively influential studio films and then going on to make a range of eclectic movies, which only really have in common the fact they are exasperatingly inconsistent. The consensus is that Carpenter started to go off the boil after making The Thing in 1982, though I am aware that Starman (1984) has its champions and some of the other later films have achieved cult status too (Carpenter probably qualifies as a cult director, full stop).

One of those later film is They Live, from 1988, although it is a divisive and provocative work. The director Alex Cox has described it, essentially, as being halfway brilliant – which I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with. I’m fully in accord with Cox when it comes to the many flaws of the film, which are substantial, I’m not sure the rest of it is quite as good as he thinks.

The movie opens with the usual sort of Carpenter-penned theme music (my niece has been known to complain that the music of Sparks is repetitive, but they have nothing on Carpenter in this respect) and a blue-collar drifter arriving in Los Angeles; he is (initially at least) a taciturn, thoughtful chap, and also a strapping lad (he is played by wrestling heel par excellence ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper). Our hero is never actually named on screen, but he’s credited as Nada (meaning ‘nothing’). Nada is part of a growing underclass of people struggling to make ends meet, though he manages to find work on a construction site. In Carpenter’s usual sparse way, he establishes a situation not unlike an 80s-set update of The Grapes of Wrath – the majority desperately struggling to survive as a tiny elite grow richer, although there is the very non-Steinbeckian motif of the poorer members of society being placated by an endless diet of cable TV.

But then, as this is a Carpenter movie, another element appears: pirate TV broadcasts seemingly ranting about a conspiracy to subjugate and exploit the population, railing against the mysterious group responsible for the economic and social divisions in the country. It turns out the rebellious group are based in the church next to the camp for homeless people that Nada is living in; the police arrive and brutally deal with the group.

However, Nada does some poking around in the lab that the rebels were operating and finds a pair of sunglasses. He pays them little heed until he puts them on and sees a world transformed: TV screens, billboards, signs, the covers of books and magazines – all of them projecting subliminal messages along the lines of OBEY, CONSUME, DON’T QUESTION AUTHORITY, and so on. Even more disturbingly, the glasses reveal that many of the wealthiest members of society are in fact skull-faced green-skinned aliens…

It’s They Live’s one great moment of inarguable brilliance, and such a neat idea it has been co-opted by other films since (most recently Free Guy). Of course, it’s a good science fiction idea, but it’s also an openly allegorical and subversive one (Slavoj Zizek discusses the film at some length in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) – you have to give Carpenter some credit for managing to get such an anti-capitalistic message into what was a fairly mainstream film.

(Of course, Carpenter is on slightly treacherous ground here – as far as he’s concerned, They Live is metaphorical, suggesting that the elite of society have alien values and treat everyone else like a different species (possibly contentious, but defensibly so). The problem is that some people have interpreted the film as an actual allegory in support of a wide range of crackpot (and objectionable) conspiracy theories about the world being secretly run by aliens or lizards or alien lizards, which usually end up heading off into anti-Semitic territory or somewhere even nastier. Carpenter has said this wasn’t his intention, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, nor do I think that a film is necessarily bad just because it can be interpreted to support offensive views.)

Unfortunately, making a truly great film isn’t just a matter of having a good idea, you have to do something with it too – and the problem with They Live is that, having finally pulled off his big reveal (and not before time – we’re quite a long way into the film by now), Carpenter doesn’t seem to know what to do next in terms of developing his idea or exploring it further. So he falls back on cheesy B-movie action tropes and cliches.

Up to this point Nada has been depicted as a more or less normal, decent, reasonable, reserved kind of guy; probably a Republican voter, but you can’t have everything. Having been attacked by two aliens disguised as police, however, he arms up with their weapons, walks into a bank, delivers a cheesy one-liner and starts blowing away every alien he sees with a stolen shotgun. The action is reasonably well-mounted, but it still feels like a film which initially showed compassion and a flash of real intelligence and wit has suddenly become gleefully stupid and a tiny bit crass.

It gets worse (in every sense). The screenplay was written by Carpenter himself (under the Lovecraftian pseudonym of ‘Frank Armitage’, which is also the name of Nada’s sidekick, played by Keith David), although ‘written’ probably suggests a degree of structure and coherence which it doesn’t really deserve. Many of Carpenter’s creative decisions are, well, very odd indeed, and seem poorly thought-through (if thought-through at all) – for instance, most films start fairly slow and then pick up the pace as they continue, but this one plods along steadily from beginning to end. Even the film’s most celebrated sequence – a brawl between Piper and David in an alleyway, adding very little to the plot, which goes on for six ridiculous minutes – has a weirdly stately and unhurried quality to it.

They Live doesn’t just become a cheesy B-movie action film, it turns into a really bad cheesy B-movie action film. By the end, characters and locations are appearing and disappearing simply to serve the meanderings of the story, with their personalities and agendas changing to suit. The main female character, played by a third-billed Meg Foster, initially comes across as a steely Howard Hawks-type dame, but in each of the three short sequences she appears in she has a different attitude and set of priorities – she’s very obviously a plot device rather than a character.

Some have suggested the sheer badness and incoherence of the second half of They Live is intentional, that it’s a deconstruction of the kind of pap commercial cinema the big studios routinely pump out, and that as it a result it’s part of the film’s subversive thesis. But it just seems like a bad movie to me, and – regrettably – much of a muchness with a lot of later Carpenter movies. Perhaps it’s because the film has that one really great cinematic moment of revelation that the rest of it feels so very disappointing in comparison. But what is certain is that the opening section of the film promises a very great deal, which the conclusion dismally fails to deliver.

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