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They Live (1988)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“You see them on the street. You watch them on TV. You might even vote for one this fall. You think they're people just like you. You're wrong. Dead wrong.”

Once American movie makers produced major motion pictures which explicitly and severely criticized their own government and political system; such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington, The Great McGinty and Meet John Doe. Made before the ascendancy of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Hollywood blacklisting and the McCarthy era, those films had explicit and severe critiques of government in the US. As one might expect, the actions of congressional politicians grilling people such as Frank Capra had an effect on movies.

When “radical” political commentary returned to major motion picture production, it was more subtle, often taking the form of historical films such as Spartacus and later Gladiator with dystopian science fiction such as 1984 and later films which commented on the veil maintained by the establishment over its actual workings, such as The Truman Show and The Matrix. Recently, more explicit political commentary such as that in V for Vendetta has arrived in American theaters.

However, as good as they are, these recent films still do not criticize the actual State of today and its patrons as directly as Capra and Sturges did sixty or more years ago. It has taken a while and Hollywood has traveled a long path to recover to the point it has. Along that path, before V for Vendetta, before The Truman Show, before The Matrix, John Carpenter made They Live. As in The Truman Show and The Matrix, appearances in They Live differ from the underlying reality.

The movie opens with the arrival in a western rail yard of the film's protagonist while a very basic slow bluesy beat accompanied by harmonica and moving trains occupy the sound track. Although I didn't catch the main character's name mentioned in the film, the credits call him Nada (played by wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper). Clad in his work boots, jeans and weathered bomber jacket, Nada walks along the busy streets carrying his bedroll and pack on his back heading for the center of the large city. At a job service, which has all the earmarks of a useless government bureaucracy, a social worker tells Nada “there's nothing available for you right now.” He doesn't seem very surprised.

Nada walks into a park where a black “street preacher” (Raymond St. Jacques) addresses a crowd. His “sermon” veers away from strictly “religious” topics and into discussion of social situations as he says: “Outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They're all about you! All around you!” As the preacher says “They control us” a police car arrives on the scene and Nada starts to leave the park.

While the preachers says: “Wake up! They're all about you! All around you!” the camera switches to a television showing Mt. Rushmore and then an eagle flying. Subtle? Yes, but very effective. That television sits in an appliance store visible from a sidewalk as Nada passes on his way to a night of sitting on the ground in an alley with others next to a fire in a barrel made to keep them warm, as police helicopters fly overhead. Bleak? Also yes, but such scenes may become common in the next few years.

The next morning at a construction site, Nada asks a man about a job. With persistence, he gets hired and later that day after work gets to know another worker at the site: Frank (Keith David), who tells him of a place where he can sleep, shower and eat. Nada and Frank meet Gilbert (Peter Jason), who helps to run the squat where they all stay. Even there television seems omnipresent, as squatters watch while “hackers” break into the regular programming with messages such as: “We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep. ... They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices. ... We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery.”

Nada sees Gilbert with the street preacher he heard earlier at the park. Gilbert guides the preacher into an old Spanish style building with an Episcopal church sign that sits near the squatter area. Nada becomes more curious about the church. Later he slips into it and discovers both more and less than a choir practicing “Rock Of Ages"; in fact, the singing comes from a tape. While there Nada finds a secret compartment in a wall containing boxes, before the street preacher discovers him. The blind preacher allows Nada to leave saying that he'll be back. As he leaves police helicopters go by overhead.

Gilbert moves a car full of boxes away from the church, while Nada watches through binoculars. Later that night with Nada still watching, the police helicopter reappears and the occupants of the church flee. As Gilbert and others lead the blind preacher away from the church many police cars and a SWAT team arrive at the church to “subdue” it, while armed police with a bulldozer attack the squatter area. The squatters retreat in the face of the onslaught.

The next morning back at the squat, Nada finds the area mostly cleared of the simple dwellings that had occupied it the night before. The nearby church — burned, but not completely destroyed — draws him. As Nada looks through the trashed church interior he finds the cubbyhole from the previous day which still contains a cardboard box. He takes the box, leaves the church and heads toward the center of the city. In an alley — near trash containers — he opens the box to discover it contains dozens of sunglasses. He removes a pair and hides the rest and their box in the trash area.

After leaving the alley, while walking down a busy sidewalk, he eventually puts on the pair of sunglasses. At first, he doesn't notice a significant change. However, as he wears the glasses longer Nada notices some stark changes in signs, television and more. I won't enumerate or detail those changes, but instead leave them for you to discover. However, the sunglasses do for Nada what the “red pill” did for Neo in The Matrix: they allow him to see “the real world.”

Eventually, Nada also meets Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) who works in programming at the television station. She along with Frank and Gilbert figure prominently in the remainder of the film's events. Although some might not care for the use of a few words in the context within this film, They Live may give director John Carpenter's most trenchant critique of the world in which we live. If you like action/adventure movies, if you liked The Matrix, if you don't care much for what the “people” in Washington DC have been doing for the last few decades, then you probably will find much to like in They Live.

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