Thursday, May 19, 2011

They Live (1988)

"I'm here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I'm all out of bubblegum."

That one line, spoken by George Nada ("Rowdy" Roddy Piper) early in the film, pretty much sums up They Live. You know, from that point on, that you're in for a goofy, wink-and-nudge satire that goes for big camp rather than serious thought. Of the three films reviewed in John Carpenter week here, I'd say this one stands above the rest as my favorite, in its sheer understanding of being fun and never taking itself seriously.

It all starts when George comes to Los Angeles, seeking a job after losing his in Denver. He ends up at a construction site, and lives in a late-'80s version of a Hooverville with the other casualties of Regeanomic prosperity. One day, however, he comes across a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the truth about the world around us: the world has been taken over by aliens, who use a radio signal to disguise themselves as people and have lulled us into consumerist complacency with subliminal messages hidden in the products and advertisements that fill daily life. Determined to set humanity free from its shackles, George goes on a rampage, taking out the aliens and eventually enlisting the help of friend Frank Armitage (Keith David) to take out their satellite dish, exposing the aliens and their deception to the world.

This is probably as Marxist as a film can get without actually declaring itself so. Here's the working man, rising up against the capitalist American bourgeoise that's controlled the economy for its own benefit, increasing the wealth gap and boasting of prosperity while the proletariat sees none of this success trickling down to it, demanding their own piece of the fortune pie. Carpenter winkingly slams the economic policies of President Reagan just as he was leaving office, and mocks our consumerist culture for placing too high a value on possessions and money (one terrific gag is what George sees when he looks at a wad of cash with the glasses on: "This Is Your God"). In a way, this is the anti-Wall Street: if Oliver Stone's film was meant to be a critique of what Reaganomics had (and will) do to the country, then They Live is Carpenter's laughing fantasy of how to fix that problem with guns blazing and real American machismo winning out. He even takes a dig at the conservative cries against cinema, with a winking nod to the directors who should be ashamed of themselves for all the violence in movies (namely, "George A. Romero and John Carpenter").

In general, using professional wrestlers as actors is a recipe for terrible movies (and I've seen plenty on basic cable, namely with John Cena headlining), but it's hard to image anyone but "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in this role. He's a perfect embodiment of cornpone American masculinity - which is ironic, since he's Canadian - and his very limited skills as an actor actually work in favor of the movie's camp factor. No other actor could have delivered the bubblegum line, among other great one-liners such as "Life's a bitch, and she's back in heat," with the stone-faced seriousness that Piper does, and still make it both hilarious and fitting. And his ridiculous extended fight scene with  David is almost exclusively to show off the moves he honed in his career in the WWE, a scene that's like the action equivalent of the famous rake scene in The Simpson's "Cape Feare" episode, dragged out to obnoxious lengths, growing old before going on so long that it's awesome. It's a perfect example of great casting that isn't necessarily great acting.

They Live has had a terrific life as a cult classic, and it fully deserves that honor. The film is an outstanding culmination of Carpenter's proclivities for action, sci-fi, and dark humor, put together with a knowing smirk. Like George's last action of the film, it's a big "up yours" to the conservative, and filmmaking, Establishment.

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