John Carpenter"They Live'(citywide) which might have been subtitled ‘Invasion of the Space Yuppies, has its share of underthought or overwrought moments. The tone keeps shifting radically. It has some silly lines, plot lapses and goofball action scenes.
But you can forgive the movie everything because of the sheer nasty pizazz of its central concept. Carpenter shows us an America run by an oligarchy of outer-space ghouls who’ve clouded everyone’ minds through subliminal advertising on TV, newspapers, magazines and billboards. Their only foes are loose coalition of non-indoctrinated street preachers,poverty workers and reluctant revolutionaries.
The movie daffily mixes up the paranoia of the Red Scare monster movies of the 0 with different kind of nightmare: the radical’ belief that everything is tightly controlled by small, malicious ruling elite. Everything--the flat lighting, the crazily protracted action scenes, the monolithic beat and vamp of the score--reinforces mood of murderous persecution mania. The Symbionese Liberation Army characters in Schrader"Patty Hearst’ might have dreamed up science fiction like this, though they would have left out all the humor.
The movie projects Los Angeles parallel to our own, full of high-rises and homeless, splashy wealth and grinding poverty. Then it suggests that most of the rich snobs are extraterrestrial invaders, with the media and TV charade to keep the population docile and deluded.
But there’ campily stunning premise that springs all this into life: the cheap-looking sunglasses through which the hero, homeless construction worker named John Nada (played by wrestler Roddy Piper) can suddenly see the space ghouls. These glasses suggest both hipster’aviator shades and the throwaway pairs you get at 3 movies; they’re also like the looking glass through which Alice passed. When Nada slips them on, the city is drained of razzle-dazzle color. It becomes flat, monochrome. The glasses penetrate the invaders’ human disguise, along with the sham of TV. Billboards and magazines turn into placards or broad sheets, exhorting the masses -style, to ‘Obey!'Conform!'Be subservient!'Marry and reproduce!
An idea as inventively wicked as that might make even bad movie entertaining. But Carpenter and his team seem to be having lots of fun.'They Live, one of his best films, has the paranoid buildup of ‘The Thing’ or ‘Halloween’ and the lazily malicious anti-Establishment humor of ‘Dark Star. At one point, he even shows us ghoul on TV, gesticulating like Rex Reed, while condemning sex and violence in movies by George Romero and John Carpenter.
The movie’ acting is variable though Keith David, of ‘Platoon, is excellent as Nada’ black buddy, and the screenplay is credited to Frank Armitage, Lovecraftian name that may be another of Carpenter’ little jokes, like Quatermass, in ‘Prince of Darkness. But there’ confidence, robust ease and flow here, that seemed to be lacking in his last two features.Carpenter has never been expert at embellishing. His movies have straight-line, uncluttered drive, the simplest phraseology. Here, though, the joke is in the material; the idea itself is funny and daring. And some time soon,'They Live'(MPAA rated for sex, language nudity and violence) suggests, with grim, knowing wink, the joke may be on us.