Every few months, RollingStone.com will shine a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, underappreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a new series we’re calling “Be Kind, Rewind.” Our latest movie: John Carpenter’s They Live.
Spend enough time (a life-ruining amount) writing and thinking about movies, and you begin to obsess about things that are only tangentially related to what’s in front of you. It’s the groupie-ish side to being a film critic. We all do it, even if our rock stars are intense directors who can barely function in public. From my teenage years on, I lavished a ridiculous amount of energy pondering the question: What would it like to be John Carpenter? Not to make his movies — to be him.
Even in his Eighties heyday, Carpenter always came across as bored in interviews, a rascally chain-smoking Kentuckian who’d rather be watching college basketball. If you were JC, you’d probably grow tired of yet another question about Halloween, the slasher-flick classic you made when you were 30 and that redefined a genre you only partly gave a shit about. You might go home and putz around in your synthesizer room, coming up with spiky music for futuristic thrillers. For several years, Adrienne Barbeau would be there to greet you. And then, after hundreds of phone calls with Kurt Russell, after getting the opportunity to remake your favorite movie and improve upon it (The Thing), after watching your passion projects tank at the box office, you’d hit a brick wall.
They Live, Carpenter’s 1988 paranoid freakout, deserves to be thought of as a masterpiece, an artist’s defiant last grab at substance before losing the thread. It’s a cheesy but lovable movie about a working-class hero (WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), struggling to find work in a harshly class-riven Los Angeles. He discovers, after slipping on a pair of special sunglasses, that the city’s abundant population of yuppies are aliens. It’s that simple: Yuppies are aliens. In interviews, Carpenter often goes further than his screenplay (based in part on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” which became a 1986 graphic novel), flatly calling the secret ghouls Republicans. They Live portrays these goo-faced interlopers, as viewed via the black-and-white sunglasses-cam, in three-piece suits, being pushy and uncaring, blithely telling their coworkers to “Go for it.” And when they’re finally seen for what they are, by this nothing of a denim-clad construction worker (Piper character is named Nada), they panic.
Plenty of films since Carpenter’s have come down hard on Reaganomics; it’s almost too limiting of They Live‘s stealth power to call it a political screed. Far more adventurously, this is a thriller — a mass-consumable entertainment — that tries to reprogram its audience into anti-consumers. Everything we watch in a theater asks us, to some degree, to see the world as it does. But They Live literalizes that idea, forcing the shades on us to display a wholly different perspective. The first time Nada gets hip to the secret world order, he’s walking down a city street on a typically hazy L.A. morning. He slips on the glasses — and what we see over the next several minutes is something no other movie has attempted as plainly. Billboards become bold-text messages. A bikini-clad woman is replaced by “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” Magazine racks exhort us to “CONSUME” and “OBEY.” A wad of bills in a vendor’s hand says “THIS IS YOUR GOD.”