How can a corporate executive be so greedy that he would loot his company, drive it into bankruptcy, leave his workers unemployed, ask the government for a bailout, and then give himself a bonus? Maybe he's not human. Maybe none of those corporate types are.
For a low-budget sci-fi companion piece to Oliver Stone's Wall Street, I give you John Carpenter's They Live. Gordon Gekko may be a metaphorical wolf in a business suit, but the rich in They Live are literally aliens, intergalactic free-marketers who have taken control of every nation and transformed the earth into a Third World planet. The aliens have lulled humanity into submission by altering their state of consciousness into something resembling sleep. Most people are blind to the truth. They don't question how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
At its heart, They Live is classic Carpenter anti-authority. It's a glorious celebration of giving the finger to the government, big business, police, and the media, any entity out to screw people and exploit them. Ultimately, it is the individual, resisting the efforts to be brainwashed and bribed, who defies the system and brings it down. This provides for good macho action, but there is a sense of disappointment because Carpenter keeps the movie at B-level ambitions when he really could have gone for something bigger.
John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a drifter, taking whatever job he can to get by. In Los Angeles, he winds up in Justiceville, a shantytown near a church, and gets a job at a construction site with Frank (Keith David). After noticing strange behavior on the part of several people, including camp leader Gilbert (Peter Jason), and the destruction of Justiceville by the police, Nada finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal a shocking reality. Aliens walk among us, subliminal messages are printed everywhere with phrases such as "Obey," "Marry and Reproduce," "Consume," and, on money, "This is your God." After getting Frank to go along, Nada falls in with a resistance group that plans to destroy the TV signal that constructs the false reality.
While not as deep as it could have been, the satire is good. The aliens use the media to breed apathy, greed, vanity, and complacency in people, and pay off people in power. Coming from the same decade that gave us the mantra "Greed...is good," that is eerily plausible. Carpenter said in an interview he wrote the movie because he was fed up with how everything is designed to sell something. Consume, consume, be happy, and forget about the lost jobs, crumbling infrastructure, and the consolidation of power in the hands of the few. If anything, that trend has only escalated since the film came out. At one point, Frank, a former steel worker from Detroit, says he took a pay cut to help his company out, but the executives gave themselves a pay raise before shutting down. Golden parachutes, anyone?
There is also anarchistic glee in watching "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, wearing sunglasses, holding a shotgun, and standing in front of the American flag, declare, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." Then, he blows aliens away left and right. Similarly, you couldn't find any more testosterone if you tried in the infamous six-minute fistfight between Nada and Frank; it's not well choreographed or objectively good, but there is perverse enjoyment in seeing these guys beating the holy crap out of each other.
Which I think is part of the problem. The scene where Nada dons the glasses and unmasks reality is an incredible sci fi moment. Through the glasses, the world is black-and-white, colorful advertisements and magazines have been replaced by simple text with the above commands, and the aliens move about unnoticed. No music is played, and Piper really sells the shock and awe. Then, he begins to mouth off (very funny, I must add) at the more dignified looking aliens (well, they're in suits and gowns. The creature design is goofy) before shooting several of them, and that's when we realize Carpenter has created this intriguing world but done little more than film an action movie in it.
Many questions are never answered. How did the aliens take over and when? What is there plan beyond make money? Where do they come from? How could someone with this knowledge function in this society? Why are there aliens as cops and soldiers if they're here to use us for labor? How does the resistance group operate? Why do the aliens bring in some humans but not others? What is the alien society like beyond the ultimate capitalist system? How much of the world is controlled? The answers are disappointingly vague.
Other plot points are dopey. The alien signal controlling the whole world is one satellite dish in Los Angeles. The subplot involving a potential love interest (Meg Foster) is handled poorly. She's introduced about half-way through, and it's obvious she's only there to betray our heroes. That Nada falls for it only makes him look dopey, and Foster's performance is rather stilted, so you know something's off. Also, there is another homeless guy (George "Buck" Flower, the guy who always played the drunk homeless guy in every 80's movie that called for a drunk homeless guy) who shows up at the end having been recruited into the alien fold. I can understand bribing government and business leaders, but what does this guy bring of value to the aliens? My guess, an excuse to see George "Buck" Flower in a tux.
There is another point, that's not really a complaint so much as an observation. One of the resistance people is a blind street preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) who acts like a prophet and voice of truth in the movie. That's a curious decision on the part of Carpenter, an admitted atheist who has taken shots at religion in other movies (The Fog, Prince of Darkness, Vampires). This preacher values the working class (he knows Nada is human by feeling his hands), and perhaps Carpenter blasts the hypocrisy of organized religion in his other movies, but here, the church is working directly for the needs of the people.
They Live is a fun movie when it could have been a great movie. The first half is intriguing sci-fi satire that holds relevant parallels to today's environment, but that gives way for shootouts, one-liners, and muscle. It has a great rebellious streak to it, and the style is all Carpenter. While not all it could have been, it's not hard to see why many consider this to be the last great Carpenter film.