George 'Buck' Flower
Raymond St. Jacques
Sci-fi / action
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They Live (1988)
7th Oct 08
Man sees aliens through sunglasses. Man eats some bubble gum and kicks aliens' asses.
Review Reviewed as part of The John Carpenter Collection out on Oct 6th from Optimum.
Imagine being John Carpenter back in 1988. Your best film to date, a remake of Hawks/Nyby's The Thing, flops at the box office, aided by vitriolic critical digs. Although now heralded a masterpiece, the 80s-influenced sensibilities and associated appetites for soft, cuddly cinema (even in a sci-fi context - just ask Spielberg) guaranteed that his greatest achievement didn't see the success it so rightly deserved. Can you imagine how he must have felt? To say he must have been pissed off would be putting it mildly.
Carpenter nevertheless climbed back, but you could almost sense that he had been damaged by the injustice of it all. His adaptation of King's Christine in 1983 had its moments, but didn't really cut it, and he knew it. Starman proved his consummate professionalism as a multifaceted filmmaker a year later in 1984 and although a success, it wasn't really what people expected and still sits a little awkwardly in the Carpenter canon. Even his infectiously entertaining stab at kung-fu action with Big Trouble in Little China didn't go down as well as it rightly deserved - 1986 audiences were confused about what to make of someone like Jack Burton, though it was obvious to Carpenter fans that he still had it in the reflexes. Then he signed a three-picture deal with Alive Pictures. To make genre films. Low budget horror/sci-fi films. Which, as we know, is what he does best.
After 1987's return to form with Prince of Darkness, he still had plenty to get out of his system. Commercial failure and critical backlash had damaged him, and to make matters worse, it was the 1980s. Reganism was rife. Consumerism was now the American way of life. Someone had to say something, right? Then who better qualified than the man whose recent output had, excuse the pun, alienated audiences and critics alike; someone whose lack of success could almost be attributed to shifting attitudes to what they wanted from a cinema experience. Carpenter had given them The Thing, but what they wanted was ET. Next, they wanted Cobra or Commando, but Carpenter gave them the hapless Jack Burton. The time had come for him to say, "Fuck you."
They Live is a brutally honest movie. Part clever message alien movie, part gung-ho action, it smacks of someone who's letting off steam, and having a great time, despite the dystopian setting. Sometime in the near future in an undisclosed American city, society is changing. The gap between rich and poor is more pronounced than ever, and belonging to the former is our hero, John Nada (Roddy Piper) - an honest and simple guy, just drifting along and looking for manual labour work. He finds it on a construction site, which is where he meets Frank (Keith David), a colleague who then leads him to a church-run community dedicated to helping folk on hard times. As Nada soon discovers, housing and feeding the poor isn't the sole purpose of the community. His attention is distracted by strange occurrences; a TV signal warning of an external controlling force here on Earth, "safe as long as they are not discovered", and a blind preacher who seems to pre-empt the broadcast dialogue. Upon doing some investigation work, Nada soon discovers that the church, i.e. the community leaders, are merely a facade for an some kind of underground resistance network. Resistance to what? He finds a box filled with sunglasses, a pair of which he puts in his pocket, and hoofs his way out of there. Soon after, the armed forces descend upon the community, destroying their makeshift homes and murdering anyone not quick enough to run and hide.
With no place left to go, Nada finds himself once again wondering the streets, which is when he casually lifts the sunglasses from his pocket and puts them on, seeing the world as it is for the first time. Huge billboards with simple commands: "Sleep", "Obey", and suchlike, magazine covers similarly say ""Consume". But it's some of the people on the street who are most concerning, because, alarmingly, they don't appear to be human.
Nada soon takes it upon himself to go all Charlie Bronson, ridding the city of anyone sporting a "formaldehyde face". His buddy Frank reappears with good intentions, but when Nada forces him to wear the shades, they end up beating living hell out of each other. Once these differences are out of the way, Frank sees. Together they aim to take the alien network down, and nobody's going to stop them.
Arguably the last great Carpenter movie, They Live is still a little flawed. However, the return to form signalled by Prince of Darkness was well and truly realised when he released this gem, and you could almost hear his fans rejoice the world over. He’s in comfortable territory here – the Western influences are there in the shape of ex-wrestler Roddy Piper, playing the Man with No Name – Nada (Spanish for ‘nothing’), as well as the original score, its bluesy grooves echoing the days of horseback and dust.
The film looks slick considering its small budget – something Carpenter specialises in. Gary B Kibbe’s sharp cinematography may not get to the level of previous lensman Dean Cundey, but he succeeds in capturing Carpenter’s alternate realities with a simple, neat finish. While Kibbe was relatively new to the Carpenter ensemble (he had only worked on Prince of Darkness), other cast and crew were well-established extended family – look out for drunkard extraordinaire George ‘Buck’ Flower as the rags to riches figure, and overacting specialist Peter Jason as the head of the resistance network. They join a reasonable cast, but They Live doesn't set out to win Academy Awards for thespian standards - this movie is about political jabs and hard-hitting action. Roddy Piper is somewhat overshadowed by the great Keith David, who Carpenter specifically wrote the role of Frank for. He's a no-nonsense kind of guy; a stock Carpenter lead who shone similarly in The Thing six years earlier. Frank's initial reluctance to hear of anything untoward gets increasingly amusing as the movie progresses, and certainly gets funnier with repeated viewing. If it wasn't for his refusal to have any part in Nada's rebellion, we would never have that fight.
Yes, that fight.
Surely one of the greatest onscreen fist fights of all time, it's probably more celebrated because of its sheer audacity, giving the impression that there's a crazed 18 year-old behind the camera, rather than a maturing director like Carpenter. But it's another one of his "fuck you" moments. He wanted to shoot a ridiculously long, totally unique fight, so that's exactly what he did. To hell with the consequences. He couldn't have gotten it more right - the back street brawl is the centrepiece of the entire movie, it's as vicious and brutal as it is hilarious, and perfectly combines Piper’s wrestling experience with the expert fight choreography of Jeff Imada. Every time you think the last punch has been thrown, they'll shakily clamber to their feet once again and continue, usually to the astonishment and despair of the other. And on it goes. The next scene sees them walking along a sidewalk, pain and discomfort etched on their faces (and bodies) - a suitable closing to one of Carpenter's finest moments.
This monumental brawl serves another purpose, too. It breaks the movie nicely into two halves, sort of like an ultra-violent intermission reel. The first half cleverly sets up the plot with an incredible script, as Nada slowly but surely uncovers information relating to the way things really are - he is still asking the tagline question - 'Who are they, and what do they want?' It is also in this first half where much of the social commentary lies, as Carpenter deftly places his heroes in a dilapidated shanty town on the outskirts of the city. This is where all the homeless, honest people live, their only glimpse of the affluent world being through the television screen, where they see models worried about how hard it is to be famous, politicians rejoicing about the new America - it's all right there.
The second half of They Live is a more functional affair - most of the resistance underground is destroyed so it's time for Nada and Frank to get tooled-up and take down the alien force in their own slightly cack-handed way. They're not really pros, but they're good enough – as Mark Kermode likes to say of Carpenter leads, they are “just guys doing stuff.” And it gets the job done.
People were accustomed to Carpenter’s tendency to exclusively make horror / sci-fi pictures were already beginning to realise there was more to the director than this when he started genre-hopping in the 80s. But They Live, along with Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape from New York, is a more action-oriented spectacle. It wouldn't be until Vampires in 1998 that he would return ‘all guns blazing’ as it were, but unfortunately with a much less enjoyable result.
They Live is every bit a Carpenter film from those great days when he was motivated to pen the script himself, but unfortunately one of the qualities people love him for isn't so apparent here: a shit-hot soundtrack. But that's only a minor criticism - the shining qualities of this movie far outweigh any minor flaws.
Phew. Sorry, I got a bit carried away with that one.
Extras: Making of featurette (8 mins) / John Carpenter & Roddy Piper Commentary / trailer