(a review of They Live (1988) and some expository drivel)
I began writing this blog a year ago for two reasons. The first is I am a writer, not by trade or anything in any stretch of the imagination. I am published, but that’s not even important enough for me to link you to the Amazon page. However, undeterred, I have unlike many other things in my life persisted, starting a new novel and beginning to do this blog, a (somewhat) biweekly way to keep my fingers glued to the keys and my brain active in the art of words. The second reason is I almost always have strong feelings about a film, but the problem with that is they’re so often positive that I feel like I’m becoming redundant. “This movie was good, really good,” all over the place. It’s so much easier to just blast a movie, to just dump on it, which I am admittedly thrilled to do when it comes to pass. My best and funniest and most verbose posts are about the movies I’ve hated, while I haven’t given the proper credit to movies I’ve loved. And I think that’s the answer, or at least an answer, as to why popular film critics are negative even about films they rate highly: because it’s easy to complain, even about good things. It’s easy to find fault, and more difficult to find praise, and people will unquestioningly listen to others.
Subtly sequeing into They Live, one of my few talents, I fucking loved this movie and immediately started kicking myself for letting so much time pass from having known about it and actually having seen it. A long time fan of what I thought was Duke Nukem’s original line, “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of gum,” I discovered otherwise (although it is worded differently) a couple years ago and was interested. But the DVD was always $10 and I’m lazy and cheap and it was always, “Ehhh, maybe next time.” And I’m stupid. Luckily I watched Big Trouble in Little China, remembered how much I enjoyed the Escape films (or perhaps just the first one, looking back), and was bolstered to the ‘T’ rack of the scifi section.
They Live is a brilliant narrative given from the humble perspective of a pleasant drifter looking for work. He finds menial labor, friendship, and a small shantytown across the street from a church. Except all is not well, and the plot quickly goes from racing conspiracy to actual evidence of alien integration and takeover, the church being the secret base of the resistance, who has developed special sunglasses allowing one to see who is not human. Thus the drifter sets out to make things right.
A not to subtle statement on the American obsession with television and money, the true form of dollar bills revealed to be pieces of paper with “THIS IS YOUR GOD” printed on them, John Carpenter’s They Live isn’t about aliens. It’s about us, the impoverished and downtrodden, a real “Eat the rich” kind of movie. Artistic expression, free thought: concepts to be forgotten in the endless and trivial pursuit of promotions, nuclear family values, and of course wealth. You sort of feel like grabbing a shotgun yourself when the movie’s over.
And I love feeling that way. It’s so invigorating, gets my beaten-chested testosterone pumping, like it lets you know that you’re not the only one to feel less than subservient. The protagonist Nada’s new friend Frank is a helpful inclusion to that end. By his own words a “walk the white line” kind of person, Frank works his ass off, toes the line, and sends every penny he can back to his family. But in one of the best simple fight scenes in film history, Nada beats some revolutionary thoughts into him, forcing Frank to see the world that is, the world that made and kept him poor and starving. This so eloquently mimics how it feels to be surrounded by people who do absolutely nothing when you stand fervent and disorderly against unrighteous rule.
What I would easily call a massive achievement in not only a stick-it-to-the-man sense, They Live is a film I feel literally everyone should watch. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s heart-pounding, and most of all it’s real, it’s alive. Now to watch it again with black shades on to feel cool.