They Live is not subtle. Neither is a Molotov cocktail through the window. But it’s mighty effective.
They Live is a satire that doesn’t want you to miss a single point it’s making. And that’s OK, as far as I’m concerned. I mean sure the coded messages Piper finds under the world's advertising, sending base messages of Obedience and consumption for consumptions sake, may be blunt. But can you say they're not true to life?
In the giddy world of making believe, the American economy is in a freefall, as the middle class is destroyed by corporate maneuvering; while the media is used to keep them pacified and powerful forces misdirect populist anger. I know it’s far fetched right?
Don’t worry though, it’s not David Koch, it’s a race of aliens, who are helping dismantle the government with the help of Earth’s parasitical elite. Phew.
You know I’m going to stop pointing to parallels now, before the aneurysm kicks in.
It’s all fairly in tune with what Carpenter’s always done. There’s a damn good thesis to be written about the use of the disenfranchised as a subject of horror. It focuses on another of Carpenter’s solidly blue collar action heroes. This time a hard working man out of work™. Whose living at a hobo camp when he notices a sharp increase in the rise of both Jack Booted Thuggery and strange Television commercials. Sensing a correlation between the two he sneaks into the basement of a local church where he finds…
C’mon seriously. Do I really need to tell you? More so then any of his films aside from Halloween, They Live has crossed over. It’s one of those movies everyone knows, even those who haven’t seen it. And while that isn’t solely because of the film alone (Shepard Fairey owes John Carpenter a fucking Coke that’s all I’m saying) that doesn’t change the fact that They Live is a film that relentlessly, primally works.
Into the chaos strides Rowdy Roddy Piper, AKA “I’m not Kurt Russell, though clearly I was intended to be.” Piper actually does turn in a pretty solid performance. He delivers the immortal “Kick Ass and Chew Bubblegum” line with conviction and certainly knows how to deliver a pile driver. He’s just not Kurt Russell. Still he is partnered with Keith David, who can generate enough charisma for ten men.
Carpenter would never get away with making They Live, the way it is now. And I’m not even talking about the subversive content. It keeps it’s hero in the dark for over a half an hour, more then a third of its runtime. No way any film today would be allowed to bury their hook so deep. Especially not one so insanely catchy as the one that power’s They Live.
The film does have it’s flaws, it carries the pacing goes slack at times, with a distinct whiff of filler, even in the famous “Put the glasses on!” scene, glorious expenditure of testosterone that it is. And though I can’t call something a flaw that I love so dearly, it has always struck me as odd that Carpenter seemed to consciously try to end They Live on the least classy note possible. The last shot of They Live is like one of those crazy ideas you would always hear Sam Fuller wistfully talk about that a horrified studio would never let him make (look up his plans for the opening of Underwold USA sometime). It gets the idea across in the most horrifically direct way possible.
And it’s that sheer heat of the movie carries it through. Sure we come for the kicking ass and the chewing bubblegum, Roddy Rowdy Piper laying some Space Skeleton’s low. But it’s impossible to watch a scene like the one set in the stockholder’s meeting, in which a smiling upper class blithely sells out the future of their species for their own personal gain, without tapping into the well of populist anger that flows through the film at all times. And makes it impossible to forget once seen.