Writer/director John Carpenter is great at atmosphere-building in his movies, and does so again in They Live. This time the film isn’t set in some dystopian future or some underground world, but in 1988 Los Angeles. We know the location well, yet it’s as though we’ve never been to this specific place before. It feels both far away and familiar at the same time. I think that’s what he was going for.
Roddy Piper plays Nada, a drifter with a sleeping bag on his back who lands in LA looking for work. At his new construction job he meets Frank (Keith David), who shows Nada to the shanty town he’s been staying at. Upon staying there the first night, Nada notices something strange going on in a small church across the street. They’ve had an audible choir practice going on for hours on end–through the night, even. After sneaking into the church’s back room, he notices a laboratory of some sort, and the choir music that’s been playing is just a recording.
We’re 30 minutes into the film and things aren’t making much sense. We know there’s some sort of socio-political theme, but not sure what any of it means yet. With that said, Carpenter is still really good at building up our interest. Even when nothing’s happening, we want to know more. The plot is moving slowly, but we trust he has it all under control. Although it can still be a little frustrating when we only get setup with no payoffs anywhere in sight.
Soon after, the police inexplicably raid and bulldoze the shanty town and the church. The next day, Nada returns to the church to recover a box filled with sunglasses that were left behind. He tries on a pair to discover that they reveal subliminal messages all over the place. Where everyone else sees a poster advertising some product, the glasses reveal something like, “Obey” or “Consume”, promoting the public’s passive attitude towards change and open-mindedness. To make matters worse, the glasses also show certain elite people as alien-looking creatures who can all communicate with each other via their watches.
Nada sets out on a mission to kill these aliens and figure out what’s really going on. But even though he has a box full of these glasses, he doesn’t really try to make anyone else put them on for quite some time.
They Live slowly builds up to where it’s going, though once it gets there it shows its hand immediately. Carpenter strings us along nicely and then all of a sudden leaves us with not much more mystery left to solve.
But the premise is intriguing enough that we stay put. They Live becomes one giant allegory for our passive culture, no more evident than with Frank’s character. He refuses to try the glasses on–a not-so-subtle metaphor for society’s desire to remain in the dark because it’s easier to. Frank is even willing to be beaten up over his philosophy in the most long, drawn out fist fight scene ever, just to drive home the point I guess. The glasses are a peek behind the curtain, but his resistance to them shows his complacency.
Nada, on the other hand, decides it’s his duty to take down “the man”. I suppose his willingness to do so should be all the character depth we need, but it would have been nice to get some sort of background for his motives. Maybe something alluding to what inclines him to be so stubborn about his morals. I get this is all supposed to be simplified, but we get absolutely nothing.
Piper, though donning a sweet ’80s mullet, nearly ruins the film with a terrible performance. He makes good lines sound bad and bad lines sound terrible. He holds the screen well in the beginning when he’s just wandering through town doing his best Sylvester Stallone impression as a harmonica motif warbles in the background, but flounders once he’s asked to show any emotion or intensity at all throughout the rest of the film. I guess Kurt Russell can’t be in every movie Carpenter makes.
They Live tells a big story in a simple way. What else needs to be said? I guess nothing. The film is pretty entertaining from start to finish. And the lack of detail only helps us see things exactly from Nada’s perspective. But when we don’t know anything else about the protagonist, this point of view can only go so far.