They Live (1988)

Director: John Carpenter

In which John Carpenter channels his loathing of the increasingly commercialised world of the 1980s through the lens of an obscure 1960s pulp SF story. I have, obviously, seen the trailer for this a number of times as part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, so I had kind of high hopes for this film based on that cos the trailer is great; alas that I didn’t enjoy the film itself nearly as much. The trailer delineates the plot clearly enough—aliens move secretly among us and control humanity with subliminal messages in the media, can only be seen by man with unusual pair of sunglasses (this much seems to come from the source story)—but unfortunately the film takes about half an hour to properly reach that plot; the first third of the film sets up our unlikely hero, John Nada (Roddy Piper), drifting from town to town in search of work, landing at a kind of shitty shanty town for the homeless. While there, he first begins to unearth something mysterious going on, something that draws the wrath of the police upon the homeless village. But it’s not until after this, i.e. the best part of half an hour into the film, that Nada actually latches onto what’s really going on. There’s something, I don’t know, structurally unsound about the film, the bits don’t seem to fit right. I got the feeling Carpenter was trying to go for the sort of satirical undertone Romero pulled off in Dawn of the Dead—in an amusing bit at the end of film he actually namechecks himself and Romero in a TV discussion about film violence—but he did so less successfully, partly because he doesn’t seem to have fun with the satirical element in the way Romero does; certainly there’s something amusing about how the film posits that the rich and powerful of the nation are really collaborating with aliens to exploit the middle and lower classes, but something about it seems hamfisted in the execution. Really hard to say what I felt was wrong with the film other than that.

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