I've been kinda sorta doing a series on late John Carpenter movies. I'm not really a fan of Carpenter after, oh, say 1985 or so. Some ineffable quality present in his early films shuffled off and left his films after that point and his films diminished over time. I haven't seen most of these films since they were in theaters, so I'm going on twenty-plus year old memories of most of them. My own indifference to mid to late Carpenter, not withstanding, most of these movies have their defenders. One or two of them even play better today than they did when they were made. One of those movies is They Live (1988), which on balance seems like it was made last year rather than sometime in the last century.
They Live postulates a dystopia in which the haves are actually aliens who control the populace through subliminal signals sent through the media. The have nots, the average joe, is seeing his horizons shrink. The middle class is vanishing as factories close and jobs vanish. A small underground of hackers has tapped into the signal and is attempting to get the word out before it's too late. The hero of the piece, who is unnamed in the movie, but called "Nada" in the credits, stumbles across the lair of the hackers and finds himself in possession of a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the truth behind the lie. Before the scales are lifted, he states up front that he "believes in America," that hard work will out in the end. But, of course, it won't. The game has been rigged. Our hero ventures forth to tear things down, to chew bubblegum, and to kick ass. And he's all out of bubblegum.
Subtract the aliens, and this movie is startlingly prescient. There's a scene early in the film when a shanty town of homeless people are cleared out by riot police with bulldozers. I couldn't help but think of the images from last year's Occupy protests, particularly in Oakland, where police used similar tactics. The Occupy movement has a beef similar to the one the underground in this movie has. This is even more on the nose than the dystopia postulated by the RoboCop movies, in which the country has privatized and outsourced everything. It's similarly satiric, too, complete with its indictment of the media as willing accomplices. Of all of Carpenter's late work, this is the one that is going to endure, because even 24 years later, it's tapped into an enduring zeitgeist.
I had forgotten, too, just how good-looking this movie is. Carpenter never lost his ability to compose the frame. I may never have known how good this movie looks, given that the first time I saw it was at a crappy duplex theater that regularly had coke stains on the screen, and afterward only on pan and scan VHS. Carpenter's native talent for framing his shots results in a surprisingly stark view of a nation in the throes of a steep decline. This is a pulp fiction equivalent of those depression-era photographs by Margaret Bourke-White or Walker Evans. You can see in the images that Carpenter puts on film the seeds of where America has ended up a quarter century further on. For that matter, the action sequence in the third act when the cops raid the resistance headquarters is recognizably the mature work of the man who made Assault on Precinct 13. Beyond that, there's an antic sense of fun in the way Carpenter puts his aliens into the ridiculous drag with which we humans dress ourselves.
But it's not perfect. It may not even be particularly good, come to think of it. Once the science fiction element kicks in, it starts to creak. Once it starts to make specifically didactic points--the billboards that urge obedience, for instance, or the magazines that implore the reader "Do Not Question Authority," or the money that says "This is your god", or when the leader of the aliens says that it's "morning in America"--it's using hammers when icepicks might be more effective. More than that, the plot of the movie begins to become one damned thing after another. It seems, well, unplanned, I guess. And then there's the fistfight. If you've seen the movie, you know the one, in which Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David beat the crap out of each other for five minutes of movie. This is, bar none, the most pointless fistfight in the history of movies, but over time, I've come to appreciate what it represents. It marks the movie distinctively. It's a sequence that is completely indelible, unlike anything in any other movie, and really, what more does a movie need to do? But it IS stupid.
One wishes, too, that the movie had reversed the casting of Piper and Keith David. Keith David is a hundred times the actor that Piper is. One presumes that Piper is another example of movie producers looking for the next Schwarzenegger, but they miss a perfectly terrific hero that's right under their noses. I'd suggest that this is ironic given that this movie specifically mentions race as an axis of oppression, and given that David was probably never even considered out of Hollywood's incessant need for a white hero. Even independent Hollywood, and even a maverick director who probably still had the power to buck the system. Alas.
The end of They Live reveals the movie as a kind of shaggy dog story. It's an elaborate set-up for the final image. The final punch line is actually pretty damned good, too. There's no denying, either, that this has seeped into the culture at large.