Saturday, April 14, 2007

They Live

"Eight O'Clock In The Morning" [1963]
Written by Ray Faraday Nelson

They Live [1988]
Written and Directed by John Carpenter

The modern (North) American horror film, whose origins lie within the socio-political upheaval of the 1960s, has frequently been used as a venue for debating social concerns. George Romero's Dead quartet is the most obvious in its critique of American society (consider the mall zombies of Dawn of the Dead). David Cronenberg's early work is a pulsating examination of the breakdown of the family unit, particularly in 1979's The Brood. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be seen as a Swiftian take on the generation gap: the younger generation is literally being eaten by its forebearers. Although no less politically inclined than his peers, John Carpenter would take longer to make a cinematic statement. The result was 1988's They Live and it was worth the wait.

The premise of both Nelson's original short story and the film is that aliens (called the Fascinators in the story, unnamed in the film) have taken over the world by lulling humanity to sleep. They use subliminal orders in the mass media to keep us numb while they harvest us like cattle. Nelson's story is a masterwork of economy. The edition I read was only five pages long, but had enough ideas and interest for a much larger work. A man named Nada is accidentally "awakened" by a hypnotist and sees the invaders for who they really are. He is given the order to die (on the titular eight o'clock in the morning) and must do anything he can to awake the rest of humanity before he is either captured or dies at eight.

Carpenter removes the death at eight and makes the aliens visible though sunglasses. He compares the alien's plans to a twisted version of big 80s capitalism: the aliens are merely exploiting the savages of their local third world. The galaxy is, after, all just an infinite free market. For a fun poke in the eye, one of the first things Nada sees is an alien on TV (possibly the President of the United States) quoting Regan's "morning in America" maxim. Carpenter also adds a significant group of human collaborators to the mix. Not every evil yuppie is a Fascinator; some are just assholes who've decided to sell out their own species for a life of privilege.

Nada is not alone in Carpenter's film. There is already a resistance movement by the time Nada is awakened (they created the sunglasses). The shootouts between the resistance and the Fascinator-led police provide the requisite 80s action sequences. Of course, this is a satire, and as such even action is up for parody. The fact that Nada is played by professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (giving a fun and believable performance) constantly reminds us of the artifice of the whole construction. (Yes, that's right, I just said that the star of Wrestlemania III contributes to an overall Verfremdungseffekt in a late-80s sci-fi movie. Deal with it.) The film contains a jaw-dropping fight between and Nada and Frank (Keith David---earlier of Carpenter's The Thing) that drags on for a comedic five plus minutes.

While They Live was a seminal 80s release for those growing up at the time (such as your humble blogger here), the film has lapsed into a state of semi-obscurity. No longer do we hear cineastes quote Piper's immortal line: "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I'm all out of bubble gum." In fact, for those who don't remember the 80s, the film is best known because the Nada and Frank fight was restaged line for line and shot for shot by Timmy and Jimmy in the "Cripple Fight" episode of South Park.

If you haven't seen They Live, you should. It's fun, funny, and no less dead on almost a decade later. In fact, the idea that the Fascinators are disrupting the environment (a throwaway line in the film) cuts deeper now than at the time of the film's initial release. Ultimately, you get a liberal message movie hidden beneath the facade of a macho 80s action pic. How can you go wrong? I mean, if you haven't watched a professional wrestler take on the defleshed zomboid aliens responsible for global warming, don't you think now's a good time? If not for yourself, for future generations....

1 comment:

A girl running for fun said...

That first paragraph is some great writing!