After heaping backhanded praise on three John Carpenter films, never totally lauding nor completely decrying them, there is nothing ambiguous about my critique of They Live, Carpenter’s paranoid vision from 1988 of rampant consumerism and Reaganomics. It stinks.
Built on a lively premise, that nothing is as it seems, They Live is a good idea poorly executed. All the foibles of John Carpenter films that could be ignored in previous efforts (convoluted plot, sub par acting, low rent set pieces) instead congeal in a way that has none of the darkly gravitating charm of his previous efforts.
The film is the story of a nameless laborer and anti-hero, played by Roddy Piper, who stumbles on the best kept, and most stunning, secret in the world. The nations of the earth, and all the moneyed interests, are controlled by a skeletal race of extraterrestrials who have invaded and taken over the planet incognito. They have planted subliminal messages in everything we see in a successful effort to control us and keep us docile. Their mantra for world dominance is profitability through enslavement. They are the ultimate entrepreneurs. They live among us as the rich neighbor with the Mercedes, the fur-bedecked woman buying hundred dollar bottles of Bordeaux. The humans of the earth have been unwittingly reduced to service industry wage-slaves and middle-class salarymen. We bag groceries, wash cars, wait tables, and push paper around on desks all day and all night. Not just some of us, but all of us, reduced to an existence whose sole purpose is to enrich our deceitful masters.
Piper discovers the dreadful truth by accident, stumbling upon sunglasses, that, when worn, allow a person to see through the aliens’ mind control. After he sees the world for what it is, and the shock lifts, trouble ensues, as he takes it upon himself to awaken mankind.
Such a bold idea deserves better treatment than it gets from Carpenter. His budget was embarrassingly low, but he had worked magic before with far less. Piper’s role has attained cult status, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that the performance is amateurish and inept. His co-star, Keith David, is as professional as he always is, but the material he was handed by Carpenter handicapped any good performance from the start.
Carpenter’s script is built from his own strong distrust of authority. Making a movie that captures his own personal paranoia in a creative way should have been his crowning achievement, his opus. Instead, any sense to the plot falls away quickly after the discovery of the aliens, and the movie becomes a confusing slugfest, punctuated in the middle by one of the most classic, or ridiculous, fight scenes ever put on film, depending on who’s doing the watching.
What’s disappointing about They Live is that Carpenter could have made a better film. He had been a consistent filmmaker up until around this time. Never producing great cinema, but making good, mindless fare that was occasionally groundbreaking, and much imitated. His influence on film can easily be measured by the number of his projects that have either been remade, or are in talks to be remade. They Live should be one of them. Such a great idea deserves a more competent treatment. If just for the idea, They Live is still better than Alien: Resurrection.