John Carpenter in Review: They Live (1988)
Plot: A drifter stumbles on to a rebellion’s inventory of special sunglasses. These sunglasses allow him to see subliminal messages and the aliens who are hiding as society’s controlling class.
The movie opens with our protagonist Rowdy Roddy Piper. He is dressed in flannel, armed with a killer mullet, and carrying a backpack full of what I assume are all his worldly belongings. He is begging for work and staying in a shantytown. This is classic John Carpenter. Among all the sci-fi and horror elements that are yet to come, he sets the groundwork by taking advantage of our more realistic fears. Never more than today is the fear of losing our job, our house, and all our possessions more terrifying. This is Carpenter at his most brilliant.
The character of Nada is also very Carpenter-esque. He is very blue collar, a craftsman and workhorse who has fallen on hard times. It seems like Carpenter has a real affinity for them, even in The Thing which includes a number of intelligent researchers all come off with blue-collar attitudes rather than brainy and stuffy. Nada is an all-American hero who has a tragic history and not so bright future, but he is fighting to make it better. He seems tailor made for Kurt Russell, another ’80s hero with a mullet and frequent Carpenter collaborator. I kind of wish Russell had gotten the part since Piper was definitely a little wet behind the ears. Without completely dismissing Carpenter, his material doesn’t always call for the most emotionally in-tune actor; it was just that Piper was lacking a certain level of comfort on screen. He has just enough charm and presence to get through the film.
It isn’t the most violent or action-packed movie, but it will most likely be remembered as one. Smack dab in the middle of the movie is by far one of the greatest fight scenes ever filmed. It is between Piper and his on-screen partner, played by Keith David. It is a knock down drag out fight between two very large men who just throw their meat hooks around with reckless abandon grabbing nearby objects to get the upper hand getting in way over their head as far as possibly killing each other over a pair of sunglasses.
The movie is in fact a very clever science fiction film. I define science fiction as the discovery/advancement of technology, ideas, and science AND the consequences that come from that advancement. One of those advancements is the creation of the special sunglasses that void the alien signals that conceal their identities, messages, and floating surveillance robots. This discovery has caused Nada to take matters into his own hand shooting bullets and one-liners to a group of bank patrons some of which are actually aliens. Of course, the clever script is put through the Carpenter ringer who added a good level of grit, dark humor, and cheesiness.
They Live is a very memorable movie. It has plenty of good elements that make up for the bad, even though all of their bad elements are full of cheesy goodness and don’t need much apologizing.