Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Microreview [film]: They Live directed by John Carpenter

Cardboard Carpenter

I’ve always been a huge John Carpenter fan, and I have fond memories of They Live. So I recently decided to revisit the film and see if it has stood the test of time. Verdict: not a bad film, but not exactly good either.

They Live is the story of a drifter named John Nada (Rowdy Roddy Piper) who arrives in Los Angeles seeking work after an unspecified economic crisis. It’s never clear whether the film takes place in the present or near future, so the crisis is either the 1987 savings & loan crash or a stand-in for it. John  finds work on a construction site, where he meets Frank Armitage (Keith David). Armitage takes Nada to a homeless encampment straight out of Steinbeck. But the encampment, it turns out, is actually a cover for an underground movement seeking to expose the fact that the world is being taken over by aliens, who see humans, and the Earth, as resources to be exploited. After discovering a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see who is human and who is not, Nada embarks on a vision quest to destroy the transmitter that makes the aliens look human.

It’s pretty interesting to watch They Live in 2017. It serves as a reminder that the anxieties of the present—economic precarity, inequality, environmental degradation, the militarization of law enforcement and declining social mobility—were just as scary in 1988 as they are now. The anti-capitalist, anti-elite message of They Live might also resonate with viewers in 2017, given the emergence of “democratic socialism” (i.e. continental social democracy with a pointless new name) and economic populism in general. I also thought it was interesting that Carpenter made the connection between alien exploitation of the Earth and the historical exploitation of the developing world.

Beyond that, though, it's just not a great film. Carpenter's best films, like Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing, have incredible presence. They are moody, full of atmosphere and deep shadows. For that, one can credit both his peculiar approach to direction and the memorable synth scores he made himself. They Live just doesn't match up. The music--such an integral part of his earlier work--does nothing to build tension. Worse, the film suffers from uncharacteristically poor direction. There are all these weird pauses throughout the film: between lines, in the middle of action scenes, and so forth. And it doesn't help that both Piper and co-star Meg Foster turn in the most wooden of wooden performances.

In the end, They Live has some neat ideas but suffers from execution problems that I found frustrating. It's okay, but not better than okay.

The Meat

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for Keith David, the world's greatest character actor.

Penalties: -1 for weird pauses and sluggish pace; -1 for disappointed score from a great film composer.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. "Meh."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.