Friday, May 18, 2012

The Economy is About to Crater: They Live

John Carpenter hit his stride in the '80s, directing a film nearly every year of that decade.  Unfortunately, most people don't associate the 1980s with classics like Escape from New York (1981) or The Thing (1982), but rather with the rise of yuppies and corporate greed. Another director, George Romero, picked up on this trend early, lampooning cannibal consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Carpenter's take was 1988's They Live.

They Live is about a "roaring '90s" ruled by "divine excess." It features a commercial of a woman with long nails attempting to operate a typewriter; alas, the nails are too unwieldy, though they do allow her to neatly spear cheese cubes.

I'm pretty sure these are an actual product these days.
This decadence is contrasted with camerawork that focuses on the unemployed, on urban decay, on people down on their luck. We are told that more of the "sleeping middle class" is slipping into poverty. Were it not for the old '80s TVs and lack of cell phones, you'd think you were watching today's news. We witness the apocalyptic destruction of a Hooverville-esque shantytown by police, images that bring to mind the breaking up of Occupy Wall Street encampments.

Is this a picture from the AP or a still from the movie?
After twenty minutes, They Live becomes a science fiction film: Rich people are really a co-opted superclass conspiring with alien visitors that can only be seen with the help of special sunglasses. What follows is a tribute to '50s B-movies: The glasses themselves are reminiscent of the 3D gimmicks of early genre cinema, and the images seen through them are black-and-white, showing skeletal, rubber-masked aliens and patrolling saucer-shaped drones.

This new campaign direction really isn't working out for [insert your least favorite politician here].
They Live is part of a subgenre of hidden invaders and unheeded heroes who see past the disguises. This movie's grandparent is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); its cousins, the V franchise; older brother, The Thing; you can find strands of They Live's DNA in Doctor Who's Silence or even the goblins of Troll 2 (1990). Other gimmicks of They Live survive in popular culture: Last year's Syndicate video game featured a black-and-white overlay mode that revealed propaganda messages in futuristic advertisements. The line about being "here to chew bubblegum and kick ass" has been referenced many times: It was included as dialog in Fallout 2 (1998), among other places.

The far-reaching influence of They Live indicates it has struck a chord with the public. We identify with Roddy Piper's protagonist, a hard-working everyman with no name (technically, it's Nada, "Nothing"). He "believe[s] in America, [he] follow[s] the rules"; when Nada finds that these rules are rigged by the upper class, he begins a rampage that starts at a bank. When Americans found out about the banking shenanigans that caused the 2008 depression, we reacted with similar anger--though thankfully without gratuitous '80s action movie violence. In reality, Rowdy Roddy Piper hasn't blown up a brainwashing satellite dish to reveal the real crooks, alien or otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. As much as I enjoy Rowdy Roddy Piper in this film, I can't help but think that he's desperately trying to fill the hole that Kurt Russell left, and is not quite able to fill it. Though if we didn't have Rowdy Roddy, we wouldn't of had that amazing five-minute fight scene between him and Keith David.

    That said, while this film isn't Carpenter's best work, it's probably the last good film he made, and caps off a string of pretty fantastic works. With the way things are going, expect a CGI-Filled They Live remake sometime in the next few years; with Transformers wrapping up, I'm sure Shia LaBeouf will be able to fit it in.

    Also, when did they re-animate Bobby Kennedy's corpse?