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They Live movie review

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They Live might in theory be described as a horror movie but it is a horror movie where the horror does not come from the monsters, from jagged fangs or grotesque features or hideous creatures leaping out at you in the dark. Instead They Live’s horror is social, it’s the shock of the knowledge that the world you have been living in is a lie. Long before the Matrix made you choose between pills and the grim reality of an enslaved humanity and the illusion of creature comforts, They Live offered the same choice embodied in a pair of sunglasses or a simple pirated TV broadcast. Yet They Live is devoid of the pretentious philosophizing and self-absorbed complexity, instead it is a fable as simple as that of George Owell’s Animal Farm wrapped up in a B Movie disguise.

Ever since Dark Star, John Carpenter has made his career with movies that are more than they appear to be, morality tales and political protest wrapped around the trappings of horror and hack science fiction. They Live was certainly his most explicitly political movie, a protest against a corporate culture that valued consumption above all else, that was squeezing out the American middle class to make way for another CEO pay hike and that treated people as eminently disposable. It sounds like the perfect way to drag a movie down but They Live is never didactic, it shows instead of telling.

Beginning with the arrival of John Nada (an unsubtle pun) played by Roddy Piper to Los Angeles, They Live pans around the grim visage of a recession where people sleep on the street while television commercials ooze promises of a luxurious lifestyle, showing a hard world where the traditional obligations of American democracy have come to mean very little indeed. They Live will certainly never go down as one of the more dialogue heavy movies around and the first third of They Live has minimialistic dialogue which only further deepens the sense of loneliness and the unnervingly detached atmosphere. And when there is speech, John Nada overhears far more than he says, a television commercial here, a black minister’s impromptu sidewalk address there and a mysterious pirate broadcast cutting in on the cable and warning of a secret war being fought with signals.

While the first time John Nada (Roddy Piper) dons the sunglasses to see the true reality of the world is the high point of They Live, it’s the journey he takes to get there as a stranger encountering for the first time the reality of a war being fought between a human resistance and an alien occupation beneath the quiet surface of the everyday world that keeps the suspense going and the audience committed right up to that shocking moment.

John Carpenter as always makes the best of a bad budget, using completely minor elements to unnerving effect. From the helicopter passing overhead to static on a TV screen to a recording of a choir joyfully pounding through an empty church while conspiracies are discussed behind thin walls, each one adds to the sense that something much bigger is afoot.

Of course when John Nada (Roddy Piper) does don the sunglasses what he sees makes even the Matrix’ reality seem tame by comparison as the real nature of the lives we lead is revealed. Beneath every sign and image we have so grown used to encountering in our day to day lives lies another message. Every advertisement and sign, vacant magazine article and logo is a subliminal message, controlling everyone. A billboard of a model advertising a tropical vacation hides a message commanding the sheep to “Marry and Reproduce”, advertisements and magazine articles urge their viewers and readers to “Stay Asleep” and “Watch TV” and every dollar bill proclaims, “This is Your god.”

The unnerving expedition beneath the skin of the world becomes only more unnerving when John Nada sees a wealthy businessman buying a paper but through the glasses, sees him as a gruesome skeletal figure. An inhuman creature. Wandering into a store where upper class to upper middle class shoppers are discussing their social lives, John Nada sees more of them all around. And soon the LAPD, consisting of officers no more human than the businessman arrive and a one man war begins.

They Live increasingly begins to falter at this point and coming off the high note of John Nada’s shotgun scene in the bank has nowhere to really go but down. Probably one of the most ludricious scenes follows as John Nada tries to force Frank Armitage, a fellow construction worker, to put on the sunglasses, resulting in a roughly ten minute fight in which John Nada is repeatedly beaten up only to attack Armitage all over again. There’s no comprehensible reason why this scene goes on for so long except that Roddy Piper and some combination of the movie’s producers wanted to show off his wrestling skills.

From there John Nada meets up with the remains of the resistance and a terrible storyline involving a television reporter who works in the station broadcasting the alien signal is unveiled to its dreadful conclusion. In between though, John Carpenter pulls off another surprise, transporting us to the alien headquarters, an underground series of cement tunnels where banquets are held for the human collaborators of the alien invaders and a transporters shoots travelers back and forth between Andromeda and Earth. Occasionally goofy, the tour still manages to capture the chilling nature of human collaboration with an alien occupation force far better than V ever did.

And while the ending is somewhat awkward, the final montage of humans discovering the aliens among them, summed up by a final graphic visual metaphor, stays with you even long after the movie is done. While originally conceived as a commentary on the Reagan era and the Wall Street culture of Gordon Gecko, They Live endures as more than a one shot act of political commentary but as the daring suggestion that humans and human behavior can be every bit as destructive and oppressive as any alien invasion can be.

John Carpenter’s Dark Star review

Dark Star movie posterDark Star is fundamentally a John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon movie, more so than most such projects are. Taking form as a student film, Dark Star is essentially a whimsical student project writ large with John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon doing virtually all the work on it with John Carpenter directing, co-writing and writing the music for Dark Star while Dan O’Bannon starred, co-wrote and edited the movie. With a tiny budget of a few tens of thousands of dollars, Dark Star may look a lot like an arcade game but it was a monumental feat.

As a movie though Dark Star is a strange project. One part 2001 A Space Odossey and one part Catch 22, Dark Star is flavored with the wildly unfocused energy of 70’s cinema without necessarily having much in the way of direction. Told in a series of scenes that mix slapstick with depressive meditation, Dark Star is an anarchic story that ends in destruction and redemption.

Shot toward the end of the Vietnam War, Dark Star treats the military and government institutions as incompetent and dangerous and positions its space travelers with greasy, ragged and overgrown hair and beards flying through space and destroying any unstable planets they find or any planets they think might be unstable to make the universe safe for colonization.

Much like the anti-war novel Catch 22, Dark Star has its own pilots and personnel drifting dissatisfied on a mission of nearly pointless destruction with no real hope but escape, irritated by each other’s eccentricities and increasingly losing touch with their sanity. Pinback, played by Dan O’Bannon, proclaims that he isn’t even supposed to be on board the Dark Star but is only a maintenance technician whose real name is William Froug who accidentally ended up on board the ship and forced to take Pinback’s role. Talby sits above the Dark Star satisfied to be observing space and unwilling to spend time in the ship proper away from his transparent observation dome. Lt. Doolitle is completely out of his league commanding the Dark Star. Boiler suffers from severe anger management problem. The crew don’t so much get along as uneasily share the same space.

The Dark Star has a constantly malfunctioning series of systems that endanger the lives of its crew, destroying their living quarters, killing the commander and eventually destroying the entire ship. The computer with a warm feminine voice serves as their maternal figure taking care of the male crew who are increasingly incapable of taking care of themselves. Drifting through space and devoid of any real purpose besides the fun they get when they blow up an unstable rogue planet, the ship and the crew have no real reason for existing besides the will and whim of a space agency too cheap to even ship them the radiation shielding they need but which can declare a national day of mourning for the loss of their commander.

The line of satirically absurdist depictions of service runs cleanly from Catch 22 to Dark Star. But Dark Star lacks the polish and sophistication of a true satire. Mainly Dark Star is about bored men in space and so can’t help being boring. In between the handful of slapstick scenes including Pinback chasing an alien who is essentially an inflatable colorful giant beach ball with a temper through a working elevator shaft, Dark Star lingers on extended shots of Lt. Doolitle spending time with Talby in the transparent observation dome or the crew sitting around and eating packaged ham rations. After all being interesting requires a story and Dark Star sheds story in favor of the absurdity of a pointless mission and often ends up being pointless itself. Where the long interminable silences and empty days in 2001 A Space Odossey established the ominous in which time slips away from you in the isolation of space and living each minute as an hour becomes a surreal experience in and of itself, Dark Stars tosses the grungy and hairy representatives of its generation in that same environment and crosses Vietnam with space travel minus the excitement of any action or real plot. Boredom becomes both inevitable and inescapable. Both in and out of the movie.

Some of the slapstick comedy is funny. Pinback chasing the alien who is basically an inflated beach ball, which Carpenter and crew manage to endow with personality by adding a set of clawed vulture feet which express emotions by tapping, kicking and tickling Pinback while clinging to an elevator shaft and struggling not to fall. Deprived of its normal diet, whatever that may be and dissatisfied by the fruit Pinback attempts to feed it, the alien whom Pinback picked up and intended as a mascot, first tries to eat his head and then wreaks havoc as Pinback chases it around the ship.

The interactions between the computer, Lt. Doolittle and the intelligent bombs, a definite Philip K. Dick touch in the movie, who are programmed to detonate lead to the conclusion of the movie that has Doolitle trying to prove to the bomb using phenomenology that no data that it has can be trusted is amusing (and another Philip K. Dick touch), at least to those who read Descartes and noticed how many steps his proofs begin to skip from the very beginning. The inevitable result of being told that no outside data can be trusted and that it must derive all its knowledge about the universe from the beginning, the bomb promptly concludes that all outside data is flawed and that nothing exists besides itself and that it is god and promptly detonates to “bring forth light”.

This leads to only Talby and Doolittle who are outside the ship surviving the blast and Talby being picked up by the Pheonix Asteroid which circles the universe and which he had always dreamed of seeing while Doolittle uses a piece of debris from the Dark Star to surf down to the planet in an ending reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, but with a more cheerful intonation.

 

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