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They Live (1988)
Chances are if you've heard of They Live, it is for one of two reasons. One, you've heard the line that launched a million t-shirts: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." Or two: You've seen the prolonged alleyway fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David on YouTube (or the fantastic South Park parody of it). But if you've never seen the film itself those two things might give you the impression that it's just another cheesy action flick from the eighties, but in keeping with the theme of the film, appearances can be deceiving. Lying underneath the surface of this sci-fi/action flick is a film howling in fury against mindless greed and corruption.
The story follows construction worker John Nada (played by former pro wrestler Roddy Piper) as he comes to L.A. looking for work in the midst of a recession-hit economy. His journey takes him to a homeless shelter where he makes fast friends with fellow worker Frank (Keith David) and witnesses some shady dealings happening in the church across the street involving the people running the shelter. After the shelter is hit and destroyed by a violent police raid, Nada inspects the church and retrieves what seem to be an innocent pair of sunglasses. But as he puts them on they reveal to him the world as it really is: a world that's really being run by aliens who are intent on bleeding the world dry of its natural resources. And when the aliens realize that he can see them, his day only gets worse from there.
When talking about They Live, it's impossible to avoid talking about it politics. It has much to say about American society in the eighties (although somewhat depressingly, a lot of it rings just as true now). It sees a society where the only goal of the rich is to get richer and the poor are thrown onto the scrap heap with no help or support. Its people are literally being brainwashed by the TV into following the status quo. It's a society where everyone is out for themselves, and greed and apathy have completely taken hold. This is director John Carpenter's view of Reagan-era America and its values, and it's a grim one.
And into this world steps Nada, who is almost the walking embodiment of traditional American values. He's a simple, soft-spoken man who believes in his country and is willing to work hard for a day's pay. He won't take a handout and he'll always do the honorable thing. When he's given the chance to sell out and join the aliens, he resists without a second thought. In a world where most people would happily sell out for a taste of the good life, he stands alone.
In stark contrast are the aliens themselves, who can best be described as yuppies from outer space. They stand for all that's ugly in humanity, be it greed, selflessness, indifference or just plain inhumanity. They run the planet like it's a giant corporation, and any voices of dissent are quickly crushed by the police. In putting a character like Nada against the aliens the battle is symbolically the poor vs. the rich, with the film putting forward the hopeful notion that traditional ideals will always win out in the end.
That said the film isn't some joyless exercise in finger pointing, and it's entirely possible to sit back and enjoy it as a cool action movie. It has a lot of dry humor running throughout, be it the subliminal messages hidden in every sign and advert (all dollar bills read: "THIS IS YOUR GOD") and the film makes good use of the sunglasses stark black and white look, making for some arresting, and chilling, visuals. The action scenes themselves are well staged and exciting, belying the film's modest budget. As a leading man Piper turns in a nice subdued performance and he makes for a very likable hero. Once he goes into action hero mode he has a steady supply of wry one-liners to help keep things light. And he bounces nicely off of the ever reliable Keith David as Frank, who is another good man just trying to get by.
All the classic trademarks of a John Carpenter film are correct and present. He composed the moody score. He wrote the screenplay (under a pseudonym) and once again the plot is a Western in disguise: a lone hero rides, or in this case walks, into town and rights the wrongs. And in addition to all the political subtext and symbolism, Carpenter also takes his time with the pacing of the film. He gives you time to get to know the characters and the world first before the main story kicks in. This deliberate pacing also lulls you into a false sense of security. A scene can start serenely before being punctuated with a sudden burst of violence, such a scene where Meg Foster is talking softly before a massive explosion in the background shatters the peace.
And as for that famous fight scene it completely earns its place in the hall of great cinematic punch ups. Is this lengthy brawl involving Piper trying to convince David's character to try on some sunglasses strictly necessary to the plot? Not really. Is it awesome and hilarious? Absolutely. The longer it goes on the funnier and nastier it becomes, almost straying into the area of a live action cartoon. It be could argued that the fight is symbolic of how sometime's people must be forced to confront the grim reality of their lives, but it's probably best to not overanalyze it.
They Live is that rare film that works as both a cutting political satire and a rollicking good action film. It's a unique fusion and the work of a great director operating at the peak of his powers. And with or without the famous fight scene the film is underseen gem whose message sadly still rings disturbingly true today.