Friday, 5 January 2018

They Live (1988) Review - Woke Me Up Before You Go Go

That's another Christmas done and dusted. Another metric ton of mince pies consumed, another bank account bled dry; as though money was as anathema to it as legitimate criticism is to Donald Trump. And yet another family relationship irrecoverably tarnished by my ruthless acquisition of Mayfair. Does any game epitomise Capitalist Christmas as perfectly as Monopoly?

I'm now approaching my thirties (Christ, I was 18 when I started this blog), and any magic associated to the holiday has long since dried up like dating options in Smurf Village. Traditions have become obligations, schmaltzy Christmas ads carry the message of 'SPEND. SPEND. SPEND.', and the things which would actually make me happy are increasingly pushed further down the list. One film which is making more and more sense to me as a mithridate to the Christmas indulgence fatigue, is They Live.

Directed by living legend, and firm The Crusades of a Critic favourite, John Carpenter, They Live is a film wrapped in more layers than a Hasidic Jew on her wedding night. It's part sci-fi genre exercise akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Vpart urban action movie, and part pointed satire of Neoliberal politics championed by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. You know, the sort of politicians who claim you've gotta stand on your own two feet - unless you happen to be a corporation, or from a rich family. 

The film's plot is deceptively simple: a race of Space Yuppies, assisted by an all-too willing human elite, has secretly conquered Earth and set about making perpetual slaves out of humanity. These Yuppie aliens enforce policies which strip people of opportunities, promote desperation and poverty, and instil servile conditioning into the populace through subliminal messaging and brain rotting media. Yes, Yuppies, media-moguls, and Republicans are all evil. The sci-fi genre has some out there plots doesn't it? 

But there's a thorn in the Yuppie aliens' machinations: a drifter with a nutsack of steel who travels the wasteland of working class America, and joins a revolutionary group. Nada (Rowdy Roddy Piper) discovers a special pair of sunglasses which, if you wear them wherever you go, like fucking Bob Dylan, make you more 'woke' than a middle-class teenage girl whose dad's just bought her a new Mac. Basically he can see through the aliens' illusions and witness their true form. 

Armed with the magic sunglasses, a mullet, and an array of weapons and one-liners, Nada sets about trying to break the aliens' control over humanity. The sunglasses as the MacGuffin is just an excuse to make Piper look cool as fuck.

They Live is arguably John Carpenter's most layered film. Partly because there's initially this weird disconnect between the film and its dystopian story. On the one hand, Carpenter offers up bleak Orwellian imagery: such as the first view of the city through the sunglasses, a mostly silent black and white sequence which shows the prevalence of the social-conditioning messages like 'CONSUME' and 'OBEY'. That's a startling sequence, one which feels like a rude awakening - all the colour is drained out of vibrant Eighties' LA, replaced by grim colourless imagery. It feels like a natural inversion of The Wizard of Oz's exit from Kansas.

There are also scenes of all manner of social injustices: shanty towns being bulldozed away - like so many unwanted babies nine months after prom night - and police officers/shock troopers giving the underclasses the old Rodney King treatment. But on the other hand, Carpenter's iconic synth music is largely displaced by a bluesy soundtrack which is simultaneously upbeat and maudlin. Like a Dirty Harry film but with less tits. 

Piper's drifter 'John Nada' is more wise-cracking man-child than saviour of humanity. He starts the film helplessly witnessing various injustices, and yet still firmly believing in the American Dream - like an unholy amalgamation between John Rambo from First Blood and Martin Luther King. But suddenly, you've got a sunglasses adorning Piper running around with a shotgun claiming: "I have come here to to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum." And then pile-driving Childs from The Thing (Frank, played by Keith David) in a back-alley, the result of Nada's ill-met attempt to get the poor bastard to wear a pair of sunglasses.

I suppose that's the concession you make when you cast a WWF wrestler in the lead role. Fuck knows what the film would have been like if they'd cast Ric Flair or Hulk Hogan instead. I'm not complaining, however: I lap up cheesy Eighties action like how a lonely middle-aged woman collects hedgehog ornaments. But if you imagine Carpenter as spoofing not just Eighties economic policy, but wider cultural zeitgeist, a lot of the 'out-of-place' elements in They Live make sense. The fight scenes, in particular the aforementioned famous six minute one between Nada and Frank, feel like spoofs of other action films from the time - which place emphasis on the characters slugging each other one punch at a time, which sends the recipient flying across the room only to counter it by throwing the other character through a window. Repeat ad nauseam.  

Like The Thing, They Live evokes the paranoia of Fifties' sci-fi which was fuelled by the Cold War and the Red Peril. Carpenter presents to us a tin-foil hat conspiracy worthy of Fox News: not only are the nightmarish Space Invaders here on Earth, but they're in league with the Illuminati and have all but won. The aliens themselves, whilst disguised as the most obnoxious looking Wall Street assholes this side of American Psycho, actually resemble a bluish version of Janice Dickinson

Where They Live differs from The Thing, however, is that is it goes further than just not knowing who trust; it's about questioning the very nature of reality around and feeling as though you're the last sane man in an insane world. It's like being at a party and arguing about how Get Out was nothing more than an above average movie.

The truly disturbing aspect of the film is in its portrayal of how easily a narrative can be skewed. Sure, the audience knows Nada and the rebels are trying to save humanity but the world at large sure as hell doesn't. To them Nada must look like a terrorist. Because the aliens are able to distort reality, they are able to set the accepted narrative. Nada's just an anarchic thug who advocates the murder of police officers and the rich. A claim which can also be levelled at the film itself. 

The funny thing is that although They Live serves as a swan song for the Reagan era - well, no, that was actually dementia - the film's more relevant now than it has ever been. So far the 2010's have been characterised by fake news, anti-intellectualism, corporate power grabs, austerity, and ever encroaching surveillance. Social media has given rise to a new breed of Egocentricism and all but diluted genuine conversation. We're constantly told to "buy this" or "be that". Especially at Christmas. My word, I can't take any more saccharine John Lewis adverts about the magic of giving them your money. 

I don't really like to enforce my politics in my reviews, opting instead for a non-partisan approach. But there's no other way you can cover They Live. Oh sure, you can say it's a spoof action film, or a homage to fifties sci-fi cinema; but that's just eating around the main subject as though it's one of those god awful McDonald's salads. They Live has a clear message to get across, and how you respond to it says a lot about you as a person. 

Carpenter holds a mirror up to a world which is utterly unequal and selfish, and weaves a fanciful narrative about alien overlords that is, let's face it, better than the truth that we're all just evil bastards. They Live does demonstrate optimism through its central characters, however: most fight humanity's cause while only a few join up with the aliens for a cushty lifestyle - like the Drifter (George Buck Flower) and Holly (Meg Foster). Most of the characters are just people trying to make their way in a society being stripped of hope and kindness. And actual society has only gotten worse since the Eighties (apart from a small upwards blip in the mid-Nineties). 

Now there's a billionaire corporate President speaking for the disenfranchise masses and their broken dreams. In the UK our Conservative government is busy shovelling away the victims of its Draconian policies, while a rich ginger cunt bleeds the tax payer dry to fund his marriage to some American bint. We're drawn to individuals with the integrity of snake oil salesmen; who placate the masses with meaningless slogans about restoring forgotten greatness, but who only intend to keep the downtrodden from achieving their true destiny. Surely it'd only improve matters if these fucking people turned out to be fucking Space Lizards from the fucking planet Zygon.

They Live speaks for the unfairness of its time, but never has the message been more applicable. If you're not mad enough to suplex a fucking Suit through a table, then you're not paying attention. 

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