In the annals of cult filmmaking, John Carpenter has carved out his own memorial wing. Consider the résumé: Dark Star, Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China. Each of these films—and even the many flawed or misbegotten efforts scattered throughout his three-decade career—speak to his status as a self-styled outsider and iconoclast who may work within the system, but persistently thumbs his nose at his masters. Long before Quentin Tarantino heralded the new influx of cult directors, Carpenter set the parameters by borrowing heavily from genre masters like Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), and smuggling subversive, anti-authoritarian messages into hard-hitting Western shoot-'em-ups, science-fiction adventures, and horror films.
Planting one last stinkbomb in the toilet of Reagan's America, 1988's science-fiction/action satire They Live is probably Carpenter's last great (okay, near-great) film, though if you get me drunk enough, I'll make a half-hearted plea on the behalf of Escape From L.A. And now that the tyrannies of Bush II are grinding to a close—and the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has grown ever wider—the film seems as relevant now as it did two decades ago. Carpenter imagines a world where the rich and powerful are in fact aliens greedily harvesting our resources, and citizens are reduced to mindless, compliant consumers who watch TV, obey the rules, and otherwise surrender their consciousness and will. The joke of They Live is that the aliens aren't really necessary; much like the pod people in the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers movies, they're just grotesque metaphors for the society in which we already live. Take the aliens away, and it's a good bet that no one would act any differently.
As shambling, satiric portraits of the Reagan '80s go, They Live takes proud shelf space alongside Wes Craven's 1991 film The People Under The Stairs (about an unmistakable Ron-and-Nancy-like pair that keeps dismembered orphans under lock and key) and Larry Cohen's The Stuff (about a whipped-cream-like substance that consumes the consumer), though it's better imagined than either of them. Like Craven and Cohen, Carpenter is expert at delivering the genre goods while sneaking in all the social commentary he can manage; his movies always function as entertainments first, and everything else is subtext. So if Joe Sixpack wants to see, say, pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper bring the hurt in CinemaScope, Carpenter will happily oblige; if he happens to ponder his own role in all-out class warfare on the drive home, all the better.
Writing under the pseudonym "Frank Armitage"—a reference to a character from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror"—Carpenter based his script on a Ray Nelson short story called "Eight O'Clock In the Morning," about a man named George Nada who wakes from mass hypnosis to see the alien-controlled world as it really is. Making a not-terribly-auspicious bid for big-screen stardom, Piper plays Nada as a mullet-headed laborer from Denver who moves to a new city with no money, no prospects, and all his possessions in a rucksack. He gets a job on a construction site, but he doesn't have a place to live, so fellow worker Frank (Keith David) leads him to an ever-expanding shantytown on the edge of the city. Many of Nada's homeless chums congregate at a church across the street, where a blind preacher proselytizes about a secret plot by aliens to recruit the rich and powerful and enslave the common folk. At the same time, rebels occasionally hack into the airwaves and send out missives about the dismantling of "the sleeping middle class" and a "signal" that must be cut off at the source.
Turns out these street-corner paranoiacs are right. Nada stumbles upon the resistance movement shortly before authorities ambush the church and break up the resistance. They leave behind a secret stash of sunglasses that allow wearers to see the world in black and white, as it really is. When Nada tries those puppies on for the first time, here's what he sees:
The subliminal messages are blunt: OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, CONSUME, CONFORM, BUY, WATCH TV, SURRENDER, et al. (My favorite is the one on paper money that reads, THIS IS YOUR GOD rather than "In God We Trust.") The aliens are the wealthy and powerful: conspicuous consumers of fancy cars and jewelry, much of the police force, that asshole who skipped ahead of you for the big promotion, and politicians who cough up soundbites about "morning in America" on TV. A simple man like Nada, made all the more Neanderthal-like by Piper, responds the only way he knows how: by beating the ever-loving shit out of every alien who crosses his path.
At first, Nada doesn't have a plan beyond getting as many of them before he gets got. His short-sightedness quickly makes him a wanted man, but he does lay waste to a few aliens, while getting off some solid insults. Assessing two women through his sunglasses—one a human, the other an alien—he points to one and says, "You, you're okay," and to the other, "You, you're really fucking ugly." But all this colorful mayhem is mere warm-up to the great rabble-rousing catchphrase Nada delivers when he enters a bank, armed to the hilt: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I'm all out of bubblegum."
I love that line as much as anyone else, which is enough to make any cultist salivate like a dog in anticipation, but here's the thing: I wish a better actor than Roddy Piper had delivered it. I'm not sure what Kurt Russell—whom Carpenter cast as a modern John Wayne in Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble In Little China—was doing at the time, but with all due respect to Piper (who reportedly ad-libbed the line), it'd have been gold out of Russell's mouth. As the muse for much of Carpenter's strongest work, Russell was the perfect sounding board for the director's tongue-in-cheek irreverence, with a hilarious swagger that always stopped just short of self-parody. Piper's physical advantages come into play in the film's most notorious/awesome scene (which I'll get to momentarily), but elsewhere, he's a block of wood, and his charisma deficit doesn't do this wounded duck of a movie any favors.
Then again, how good is Russell at clotheslines and pile-drivers? Piper has liabilities as an actor, but credit Carpenter for making the most of his professional assets. There aren't many rules in comedy, but the infamous six-minute alleyway fight scene in They Live—which commences after Nada unsuccessfully asks Frank to try on the sunglasses—confirms one of them: If you extend a gag waaaaayyyy past the breaking point, it goes from funny to tedious to extremely funny just by virtue of its length. The two other examples that leap to mind are Sideshow Bob versus the rakes in the classic "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons, and our thawed super-agent hero urinating in the first Austin Powers movie. The thing that amuses me so much about the fight scene in They Live is that it's loaded with pauses where you think it's over, and then it comes to life again. There's also the sense that even though they're getting their ribcages pounded and their groins kicked, these guys are actually having fun with it. And that makes sense: After all, Nada and Frank are working-class grunts who are used to being on the other end of the boot, so they savor the chance to do their own ass-kicking for once. Their enthusiasm is infectious:
Keep in mind, that epic brawl happens solely because Frank refuses to put on a pair of sunglasses—sunglasses that have been offered to him by a friend, no less. And that underlines one of Carpenter's satirical points: People are so reluctant to change that they'd rather embrace the falsehood of their existence than act on the truth. There's some of that sentiment earlier in the film, too, when shantytown-dwellers groan at the rebel transmissions that interrupt their regularly scheduled programming. The underground resistance aims to destroy "the signal," which buries the truth in a consumerist overlay (a Matrix, if you will), but what happens if they succeed? Will revolution follow, or will humanity just slouch back into complacency?
They Live doesn't get around to addressing those questions, but Carpenter's deep pessimism implies their answer. He's the sort of cynic who probably feels the war is lost, but finds some dignity in fighting anyway, if only to do as Nada does in the climax, and flip a lonely bird at The Man. Ever the Carpenter hero, Nada wearily sums up his philosophy in one of the film's many canned one-liners: "Life's a bitch and she's back in heat!"
Cult On The Cheap Month
April 3: Clerks
April 10: Primer
April 17: Pi
April 24: The Blair Witch Project