Friday, August 21, 2015
They Live - Movie Review
Written and Directed by John Carpenter
Surely, living in this internet age, you've heard the classic line: "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I'm all out of bubblegum." A line so goofy and loveable it's been recycled and reworked for years; to the point that its origins are beginning to fade into the mists of time. Well, lemme remind you: that line was penned by John Carpenter, and delivered by a shades-wearing, denim-clad Roddy Piper just prior to shooting up a bank with a shotgun. In the movie They Live, not real life, of course.
Except.... there are many, many people who find the premise and delivery of They Live so compelling that they kinda believe it's true. Or at the very least reference it as a pop-culture interpretation of (what they believe to be) the TRUTH. Whether it's Reptilians or the Illuminati, They Live hits all the right buttons for individuals who believe the world is ruled by a shady, secret organization intent on keeping the masses sedate and obedient.
Why is this so? Well, I've got a theory!
Not only do I have a good theory for why They Live is so compelling to conspiracists, but my theory also makes sense of how John Carpenter could create such an odd movie. How on earth was this made by the same individual that gave us two of the finest horror movies of all time: The Thing and Halloween? Don't worry, all knowledge will be revealed in time.
To catch you up, in case you haven't had the distinct pleasure of viewing They Live: it's the story of a drifter who stumbles onto the TRUTH of how the world is being run by an alien race intent on the permanent dominion of humanity. These gross aliens are in charge of every level of government, the media, the military, and even circulate in society as wealthy and affluent citizens. They hide in plain sight because they have a transmitter which reprograms humanity's brains to keep humans deluded into mindless obedience and a life-style of thoughtless consumption. Our protagonist discovers this when he puts on a special pair of sunglasses that allows him to see life as it REALLY IS.
Our hero then proceeds to go on a shooting rampage, runs from the law, joins a resistance movement, and ultimately blows up a news station that is also a hub for the alien brain-wave transmitter. There are lots of explosions, my favorite fist-fight in all of film, and Roddy Piper delivering some of the most insane and wonderous lines in cinema, making this a super-fun cult movie if nothing else.
The movie as a whole is an odd-duck. Its script is very sparse. Carpenter spends large amounts of time filming Piper wandering around and looking at things. And while this sounds boring, it isn't really. The movie is shot competently, and despite its lack of conventional dialogue, conveys information effectively (allowing the audience to be drawn in to the mystery along with the protagonist). But when the script does come into play, often the lines are incredibly strange, almost surreal.
And mind you, this is not to be blamed on Piper's acting ability. This strangeness is spread across the whole script. From the utterly suburban and mundane lines uttered in the background by aliens, to the ranting of a blind priest, it seems to me that Carpenter was working hard at making the whole movie kind of uncanny. This is how you get things like the bubble-gum line.
Apart from the script, the movie oscillates between a slow-burn anticipation/reveal of mysteries, and all-out popcorn-munching action. The scenes where Piper is coping with the TRUTH, a greyscale world where billboards shout CONSUME and all signage is bent on subconsciously reprogramming humans, are particularly heavy-handed. But then Carpenter will treat us to high-paced scenes where Piper runs from the alien cops, then carjacks and kidnaps a woman at gunpoint.
Altogether, this makes They Live seem like a misfire. A movie that wants to be ambitious in saying something about society (or whatever), but also wants to be a mindless shoot-em-up flick. This mismatching in tone, the weird script, the looniness of the content, all contribute to this being seen as a 'bad' movie. Mind you, a bad movie to be enjoyed for all its badness; to revel in its 'cult' status. But certainly not something to be brought up in serious conversation. In this way I think it shares a lot in common with Carpenter's other movies like Big Trouble in Little China or John Carpenter's Vampires starring James Woods. Movies so hokey they can't help but be loved.
To be honest, this is how I considered They Live for a long time. It's incredibly fun to laugh at the ridiculousness of this movie, and move on to more respectable fare.
However, I got a theory. And like Piper putting on the sunglasses for the first time, it's CHANGED EVERYTHING FOR ME.
I have a hard time believing that John Carpenter just entirely forgot how to make a good movie in the six years between making The Thing and They Live. Even if we count the other four movies he made in the interim (Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness) to be complete floppy failures (which they are not, merely different beasts to be judged on their own merits), it's still hard for me to say that They Live is the same kind of thing. Big Trouble is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. They Live is not so clear. But if you try to take it seriously, it's far too wacky by the end to cope with. How do I cope?
Then it hit me: They Live is not a movie about an alien conspiracy. They Live is a depiction of a deeply disturbed individual's paranoid fever dream. That the character Roddy Piper plays is in fact mentally ill, and that the whole movie is a wish-fulfilling fantasy for a deranged mind. If you take the movie in this context, a lot of things about it start making a lot of sense.
For example, how is the audience supposed to believe that a man can walk into a bank, deliver the bubble-gum line straight-faced, shoot multiple people in the chest, and then run away into an alley with ZERO CONSEQUENCES? Because it's not actually happening. It's just one vignette in a paranoid schizophrenic's power-fantasy*. That's why the line is so bad, but is so delicious to say. That's why there's no consequences.
If you watch They Live from this perspective, the perspective of a mad drifter overlaid on reality, the movie suddenly becomes chilling. All the "aliens" he murders are just normal people, his erratic behavior makes a lot more sense, his cryptic speech patterns fit. He fantasizes about being powerful, being in-the-know, fighting a massive conspiracy for the good of mankind, becoming the ultimate hero.
If They Live is a delusion in the protagonist's head this explains the abominable writing that afflicts the other characters in the movie, such as the woman that he kidnaps. This same woman who throws him out a third-story window, the same woman who inexplicably becomes his love-interest by the end of the movie. Of course he projects imagined relationships onto the people around him, based on even the most minor or toxic contact. Of course he wins his friend over to his side immediately and completely after a fist-fight and one glance through the 'magic sunglasses'. Because none of this is actually happening. Or, at least it isn't happening in the way it's presented.
I think that looking at the movie this way makes sense of a lots of its perceived weaknesses. The action is schlocky because the protagonist has poor taste, and his delusion follows suit. The pace and script are uneven and weird because his perception is warped by his slow descent towards a complete break with reality. The way the world looks through the glasses is informed by the pulp alien movies of the drifter's childhood from the 1950s and 60s, even unto the Ed Wood-sy flying saucers and vacuum tubes. Characters from the drifter camp in the beginning of the movie recur in unbelievably unlikely spaces (a bum ends up wearing a tuxedo and showing them around at an Illuminati party).
If my theory is true, this means two things.
One, that this movie instantly becomes more interesting. It becomes downright creepy, in fact, because it tethers the wackiness of the film down into the real world, down to that guy raving incoherencies on the street-corner. It also provides plenty of entertainment for those who want to unravel what is happening in reality in the movie, and what is delusion.
Two, it explains the movie's popularity in conspiracy-circles. Not that everyone in conspiracy circles is mad and dangerous, but rather it shows that Carpenter got something very right. That something about They Live taps into the drives of people who are attracted to conspiracies in a way that's greater than just the p's and q's of its content. There are no magic sunglasses, but there are lots of people who believe they can see THE TRUTH.
And, when you think about the more violent scenes in They Live under the context of recent mass shootings, it suddenly becomes a very plausible and very frightening movie indeed.
*Note: I understand that not all paranoid schzophrenics, or the mentally ill at large, are violent or have fantasies of this sort. They need love and I hope the reader will not take this theory as someone casting yet more shade upon an already stigmatized group as a whole.