If I had to crown a single film King of the 1980s, I’d pick John Carpenter’s They Live. Not only did the 1988 film come out at the height of its referential decade, it also managed to synthesize the most prevalent themes of ‘80s pop culture into a perfect whole, capturing and lampooning the zeitgeist of the era in a single stroke, while also standing as a masterpiece of genre film and a signature work by one of the decade’s most important filmmakers.
It’s an action movie made at the peak of an era when the action movie came of age. It’s a horror film made by a director who redefined the horror genre. It’s a comedy made at a time when horror and comedy collided and became one. And, singularly among the works of John Carpenter and unusual (at best) for its era, it’s a message movie with something important to say.
It’s also pretty noteworthy to mention that it managed all of this while starring a second-tier Canadian professional wrestler. Let’s not forget that.
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If, by some unfortunate coincidence, you are unfamiliar with They Live, here's a recap. A working-class guy stumbles upon an ugly secret: The ruling class of America are actually skull-faced, bug-eyed aliens hell-bent on subjugating the human race. Once he becomes aware of this ugly truth, he fights a desperate battle to expose the secret to society at large.
Now, if you like your entertainment shallow and painless, you don’t have to look further than the monster-movie trappings of the plot. That’s fine — stay asleep, sheeple! Forget the social commentary and you’ve got one endlessly quotable slice of ‘80s action-movie cheese starring a pro wrestler spouting some of the genre’s best lines of all time, directed by one of the undisputed masters of action-horror-comedy film.
If, on the other hand, you like your ‘80s monster-movie action extravaganzas with a deep current of scathing social commentary, then They Live is as good as it gets. Strip away the veneer of evil aliens exploiting a sleeping populace and you have a cogent and thoughtful commentary on the monied classes' deliberate and thorough manipulation of the poor, working and middle classes to fuel their ongoing orgy of self-indulgence. Wipe away the fun veneer of extraterrestrial invaders and you have an uncomfortable expose of the havoc wreaked by Ronald Reagan’s economic policy on everyone who didn't own a yacht. And you get it all from a director who never made another “message movie” before or after this one, in the form of a film that can just as easily be taken without the message.
You can take that however you like, but for my money, its pure genius — subversive (in getting Hollywood to pay for and promote its own skewering) and fun, while still promoting a message that’s as relevant today as it was almost thirty years ago. Michael Moore can only dream of putting his message across that effectively.
The movie's simple truths are there for the taking: The rich pull our strings. Pop culture exists mainly to sell you things you don’t want, at a price you can’t afford to pay. Go along with this, and you will be rewarded (or at least ignored); resist it and you will be destroyed by a soulless machine that cares first, last and always about its own profits and couldn’t give a single fuck about your well-being. That was America in 1988, and it sure as fuck hasn’t gotten any better in 2015. If anything, they just stopped bothering to hide it in the past ten years, and who can blame them when no one seems to care anyway?
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See it for the nostalgia, see it for the brutal social commentary, or just see it for the six-and-a-half-minute fight scene, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on They Live at Films on Tap (a drinking game and a fine movie!), 10 p.m. Friday, April 10 at the Sie FilmCenter. Tickets are $10, or $7 for Denver Film Society members. For more info and tickets, visit the Films on Tap: They Live event page.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.