Skip to main content

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live*
(1988)

(SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best.


Nada: I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.

One of They Live’s most vocal advocates is the much-ridiculed David Icke, who rates it up there with The Matrix as an exposé of the aforementioned way things really are. Devoted conspiracy theorist as I am, one of the problems I have with the conspiracist view of Hollywood (and movies generally) is that, while there’s much that is undoubtedly provably tainted (military backing and support of pictures that will only occur if it paints the armed forces in a positive light, for example) the response of the beholder to any kind of creative content, pro or con their view, is that it is simply espousing the agenda of the elite (even if that’s no more than being dedicated to a grim, violent and/or apocalyptic worldview; in every instance it’s been designed to prime us for such actual developments), or is “soft disclosure” of some description.


In this eye’s view, there is zero room for the genuine creative agenda of an artist; they must have been buffeted into presenting a tarnished perspective, or alternatively somehow have their paws on the truth and have somehow prevailed enough to present the unvarnished facts. Thus, based on personal tastes and prejudices, you get Icke vouching for The Matrix on one hand while on the other, others claim the Wachowski are mere Illuminati stooges. Perhaps it’s even worse than that – anyone up to their neck in the mire of Hollywood is presumably suffused with Archons, and thus inescapably corrupted.


It’s also a frequent proud pronouncement of the conspiracy theorist that they don’t watch movies, or remove themselves from popular media, which inevitably leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby any access to TV and movies feels like a bombardment of pertinent commentary, mainlining straight to their brains. Which, depending on their aforementioned predilections, yields responses either revelatory or simply presenting the views of our secret masters. You only have to look at David Wilcock’s recent piece on Pizzagate (which he, ever modestly – if he were addressing his modesty, you can bet he would announce that he would prove conclusively in the article you were about to read, backed by hundreds of indisputable sources, that he was the most modest and retiring person who ever there was or would be – claims to be “what may well be the definitive… expose”), in which he has found pretty much any and every reference to pizza ever, right back to the inventions of dough, cheese and tomatoes, to be highly suspect and leading. When he then concludes, as he always does, by spending paragraphs documenting the inane synchronicities of his page view counts, that no one outside of Charlie Babbitt would find interesting, you end up with a sense that he’s as frequently running on the fumes of his own insurmountable ego as Ben Fulford is on the effluent of wildly variable (but always entertaining) secret government sources; in both cases, this isn’t really of any consequence, so long as they, as would-be exposers of all that is hidden, don’t mind having seriously suspect credibility from the off.



NadaYou know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.


Icke, at least, isn’t wildly insecure, but he’s as prone – as we all are – to seeing confirmations of his biases everywhere and ignoring those that conflict. So, in They Live’s case, David surmised, “I thought, either that guy got real lucky, or he’s got a very good idea what’s going on. I suspect the latter”. He proceeds to recount how Carpenter replied to a letter concerning Icke’s take on the movie: “He said, ‘Oh no, the aliens in the movie hiding behind human form were symbolic of the Republican Party’. Well, anyone who’s seen They Live, you’re having a laugh”. Attempting to further reinforce a slightly desperate position (why not just recognise that’s what it’s about, but that, through the power of metaphor and personal interpretation, it also provides an eerie depiction of what David believes it’s about?), Icke asserts “I think when you watch John Carpenter’s filmmaking history, that’s a guy who’s got a very good idea of much of what’s happening. That’s my view, anyway”.


Whatever else can be said about John Carpenter’s filmmaking history, it’s that it most certainly doesn’t present any kind of unified perspective on the state of things. This is a guy who loves Howard Hawkes and Nigel Kneale, who has made movies as tight as they come and as sloppy as hell. No doubt in some way Icke could force the disparate likes of The Fog, Christine, Star Man and Vampyres to fit his theory, but it would take some manoeuvring. And while he was about it, he’d could probably do the same with Tobe Hooper’s consummate oeuvre.


Icke’s take on the real forces at work in the world has its basis in the gnostic view of Archons (tantamount to reptilians and greys in modern lore), and “these entities, so brilliantly portrayed in They Live, are feeding off human low vibrational energy, emotional energy, fear, anxiety, depression, hatred, because that’s the frequency band that they can absorb, because that’s their stage of being” (the only part of the movie that connects with this is Frank’s speculative speech about the aliens “feeding on our cold fuckin’ hearts”), and how “it gives a brilliant visual representation of what we’re dealing with and how the world could be if we rid the world of this force in the shadows”.


Street Preacher: They have taken the hearts and minds of our leaders, they have recruited the rich and powerful, and they have blinded us to the truth.

On the commentary track, Carpenter explicitly said he made the picture during the Reagan era, and was “trying to say something about that”, and that’s really pretty evident throughout; this is a movie about the trodden down underclasses (he charitably suggests Roddy was right for the role because he knew something about that, and Piper is fine, but I still wish Hollywood blue blood Kurt Russell had starred; it would have been a punctuation point to his performance in Big Trouble in Little China and Nada even has the same mullet; of course, if he had consented to show up in a low budget Carpenter movie, we wouldn’t have got the movie’s most famous line, improvised by Piper.


Nada: I just want the chance, it’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody’s got their own hard times these days.

The first images we see are of urban decay (and They Live’s title wittily appearing as graffiti) and homelessness with Piper’s John Nada (not a subtle name) told “There’s nothing available for you right now” at the job centre. Frank’s story (“We gave the steel company a break when they needed it. You know what they gave themselves? Raises”) is effectively that of the incipient collapse of capitalism as a tail-eating snake that can never be sated. But it isn’t a prescient picture; it’s merely reflecting how things were, how they are and how they will continue to be until a new presiding paradigm replaces this unsustainable one.


Beardy Broadcaster: Our impulses are being redirected We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep.

Now, They Live definitely does work if you want to look at it from Icke’s point of view, but that’s as much because science fiction is blessed with being able to tap into broader themes and truths; that’s its currency (assuming for a minute that you accept Icke’s reading of reality, which I’m not – assuming, that is). It diminishes the authors and artists to suggest all they’re capable of is parroting a script at the dictation of their overlords (if that’s what the Icke or Wilcock are getting at; it’s either that or malign subconscious influence via the Archons). The idea that we are all sheep or zombies sleepwalking our way through lives, dictated by remote or inaccessible slave masters is nothing new; it’s simply that Carpenter and the Wachowskis come armed with arresting means of conveying that idea.


Beardy Broadcaster: The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial Justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices. Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness. We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves and others. We are focussed only on our own gain. They are safe as long as they are not discovered. Their primary method of survival is to keep us asleep keep us selfish, keep us sedated. They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are the cattle. We are being bred for slavery.


The movie’s a fairly resounding attack on ‘80s consumerism and the self-gratifying automatons it breeds, disguised as a rather nifty science fiction scenario. Carpenter is doing much the same thing with the genre here as he did for horror in his previous picture, Prince of Darkness, offering a mechanism (a broadcast in both movies) that fosters a whole different perspective on reality (religious there, economic here). And, like Prince of Darkness, They Live’s strength is all in the set up.


The payoff here comes thirty minutes in, when Nada puts the sunglasses on for the first time, and we witness the iconically-designed aliens (simple, but hugely effective) and the litany of subliminal instructions that control our very actions (it’s the next step on from Alex Cox’s blank supermarket products in Repo Man – notably, Sy Richards appears in both movies): OBEY, MARRY & REPRODUCE, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, CONSUME, WATCH TV, SUBMIT, BUY, STAY ASLEEP, DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY and (on the nose, but perfect) THIS IS YOUR GOD (on the dollar bill). All with a background hum of “Sleep, sleep” on a metropolitan loop.


Nada: Heh heh. It figures it would be like this.

This is the picture’s signature sequence in terms of its “truth” label, one that conjures Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque paranoia as Nada suddenly realises he’s in an environment awash with aliens relying on his (and every other somnambulant human’s) blithe indifference. As a no longer blind man he’s a very real threat: “I’ve got one that can see”. Piper’s stream of insults are very amusing too, of course.


Nada: I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

The picture’s other famed episode is the extended fight with the awesome Keith David, as the reluctant Frank Armitage (“Okay. You’re fighting the forces of evil, that none of us can see without sunglasses”). Frank prefers to do what we all do, not rocking the boat (“I’ve got a wife and kids, so leave me alone”). Their altercation reaches a kind of blissfully inane plateau, where the motivation is the motivation. The idea of forcing someone to wear a pair of sunglasses, in isolation, is ludicrously inspired, and the sequence commendably never quite divorces itself from that absurdity and is all the better for it (as is the bit where Piper laughs after kneeing Frank in the balls).


Frank: Maybe they’ve always been with us… those things out there. Maybe they love it… seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our cold fucking hearts.

After this, the picture can’t hope to maintain such heights. There’s still some decent dialogue, and ideas, such as the lure of wealth and power to those who work complicity with the aliens, and the signal that continues transmitting even when the TV set is switched off. Those disturbed by chem trails will seize on “Earth is being acclimatised. They are changing our atmosphere into their atmosphere”, but their motivation is very much of the capitalist creed (depleting the planet and moving on to another, all humans are livestock – that’s one of the key pieces of evidence for Icke right there –  and the Earth is just another developing planet, their Third World). There’s an excellent scene in which the human collaborators receive a pep talk concerning the resources the aliens need for multi-dimensional expansion; in return, the per capita of income of each collaborator has gone up that year by an average of 39%! And the response when questioned on such moral turpitude is also pretty damning to the majority of the western world: “What’s the big deal? We all sell out every day. May as well be on the wrong team”.


But the denouement is perfunctory, reflecting the limited time and resources Carpenter had to play with, and it means there’s little resonance to the big idea. At any rate, not in the lingering way there is with The Thing. That happened in the first donning sunglasses scene, later underlined, but not really advanced. The rest is very much cheesy B-movie hokum. The cinematography from Gary B Kibbe is underwhelming, which would contribute to the lifelessness of much of the director’s ‘90s output, and Meg Foster, apart from having crazy blue eyes and pushing Roddy through a window, doesn’t have the most of rewarding of supporting roles. The reveal ending, though, if indebted to both Network and The Howling, is amusing and adroit.


Its patchiness is part of its charm, of course, and more directors should do what Carpenter did, dabbling in low budgets when big success proved elusive; the majority of his ‘90s fare, and subsequent descent into a semi-retirement of videogaming, are illustration enough of that. Icke would certainly appreciate Carpenter’s take on aliens, though, that “I always believe that aliens should be evil. I don’t believe that Close Encounters and E.T. is valid because they’re not evil. They’re nice’. Certainly, that accounts for The Thing, and They Live (and the Village of the Damned remake). But Starman, John? Starman’s not evil. A bit wet, but not evil. That one’s also getting a remake, it seems. They Live could do well from a reinterpretation, in distinction to almost all of the other remakes we’ve had of Carpenter movies, since it’s an imperfect picture blessed with a perfect idea; a filmmaker with the savvy and budget to do it justice could be a godsend. It could even have a cameo from Icke, provided, if the Archons are amenable.


*Or is it They Live! - I certainly remember the title having an exclamation mark. So perhaps the damn mysterious Mandela Effect is at work here too. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.