They Live (1988)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #365

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: June 23, 1989
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 93 minutes
Budget: $4,000,000
Box Office: $13,008,928
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Larry J. Franco
Screenplay: Frank Armitage
Based on Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson
Special Effects: Roy Arbogast
Cinematography: Gary B. Kibbe
Score: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Editing: Gib Jaffe, Frank E. Jimenez
Studios: Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions
Distributors: Universal Pictures, Guild Home Video
Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, John Lawrence, Susan Barnes, Sy Richardson, Wendy Brainard

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Suggested Audio Candy

John Carpenter & Alan Howarth “Welcome To L.A.”

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If the world was being overrun by aliens would you prefer to be let in on the Intel or simply remain oblivious? I’m not sure you know. What you don’t know can’t hurt you right? Maybe ignorance really is bliss, after all, I only ever wished for a quiet life and, should these extra terrestrials not be messing with me, then why should I meddle with them? If a political broadcast airs on television then the first thing I do is to remove my shades as I would rather they just remain ambiguous. As for advertising, well it never had the most honorable intentions to begin with. It’s just another shameless attempt at prising the hard-earned cash from our grasp; should a cookery show cut to commercials then cunningly placed ads for alternative menu selections are always on hand to make us salivate, thus encouraging us to part with our pocket change. I often ponder whether the aliens have already docked and are currently recruiting with the intention of wiping out civilization as we know it. I’m not sure I would wish for such a burden as knowledge should that be the case.

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The world is populated with over seven billion people according to statistics and continuing to escalate at an astonishing rate. That’s a helluva lot of people to attempt to suss out. It can be a thankless task trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, therefore I tend to focus my attention on putting my own house in order and leave the Joneses to their own devices. Should they be nefarious then good for them; as long as they don’t come pissing in my garbage can then they are quite within their rights to plan worldwide domination. I’m not suggesting that I don’t care; I’m very much bothered about the world my little boy will grow up in and don’t wish for him to learn the words ‘alien probe’ any time soon. However, I believe in making a difference through kindness and if blindness offers the only motivation to continue then so be it. I’ll turn a blind one gladly.

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Having said that, if there really were a pair of sunglasses which afforded me with the ability to know my enemy, then it may be fruitless for me to resist taking a peek. Nobody need know; they could just be prescription for what it’s worth, something to stop the solar rays interfering with my retinas. Maybe just one gander; couldn’t hurt right? Fuck it, who the hell do I think I’m kidding here? The temptation would be far too great to resist, after all, forewarned is forearmed. It doesn’t mean I have to act on my findings; I’d just be a little more wary of door-to-door salesmen and Jehovah’s witnesses from hereon in. But at least I’d know who the rotten eggs truly were. Alas, one thing which forty years of life have made abundantly clear is that we’re not all meant to simply get along. Everyone is wired individually and, for some, they simply aren’t satisfied unless there’s some way of upsetting the natural order. Should I be aware of these infidels then I know exactly who to avoid like the plague, but that doesn’t mean that the lozenge of truth would be any less bitter to the taste once I learn the full extent of their takeover bid.

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Nada (Roddy Piper) knows only too well of the fine mess we have gotten ourselves into. He’s just a regular guy trying to make an honest wage in a world predisposed with affording the well-to-do greater riches, while sticking it to the poor man. Something is clearly up but he can’t quite place his consternation. That is until he unwittingly receives inside information courtesy of a pair of Ray Bans with the unique selling point of enabling him sight beyond what his eyes would ordinarily discern. The Man is hiding something; this underground movement is steadily moving topside and the shit may well be about to hit the fan at its optimum oscillation setting.

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He turns to the one man he knows he can trust. Frank Armitage (Keith David) is a little more skeptical or perhaps he would rather remain out-of-the-loop on this occasion. After all, David had already been through the rigmarole of deciphering the intergalactic threat once already when shacking up with The Thing and there’s no way on Earth he’s about to agree to another blood test anytime soon. A scuffle ensues between the two men and, boy, what a ruck! In the history of fisticuffs this may well rank as the most exhausting to endure. For weeks, Piper and David grappled, with the only condition being no face or low blows. John Carpenter just let them get on with it and was proven right in his decision as their back-alley brawl is still the stuff of legends nearly thirty years later. Ultimately, Frank is forcefully made aware of the alien threat and, to make matters worse, he now has a rack of bruised ribs, ten busted knuckles, and a white eye to tend to. It would have been a lot easier had he simply put on the damn shades at first request, but then, we wouldn’t be sitting here contemplating such a royal rumble.

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Carpenter, writing under the conspicuous alias Frank Armitage, gathered inspiration for They Live primarily from Ray Nelson’s short piece of pulp fiction entitled Eight O’Clock in The Morning which was published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction back in 1963. Its fascinating premise was ripe for the picking by the eighties, with consumerism playing such a significant part in our everyday grind. Individuality wasn’t exactly rife during this epoch; a fact touched on already by George A. Romero a decade earlier with the seminal Dawn of The Dead and still just as relevant, if not more so. His conspiracy theory is never less than digestible, encourages us to look at what’s really going on in the world, and asks just one thing in return… that we read between the lines. As an extra sweetener he casts Meg Foster as Holly and, should there be one set of peepers which could convince me that reproduction is the only way forward, then her emerald gemstones would have my sailors willingly walking the plank before she could so much as flutter her lashes. However, I may well leave the shades off during coitus on this evidence.

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If Piper and David provide the ideal foil for one another then it is Foster who courts the inevitable. While they’re bickering with one another and trying to work out how to halt the end of days, she’s fooling us with her very best ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ look and ensuring that the final act provides the sucker punch that Carpenter is looking to facilitate. The opening third focuses on (dis)illusion, the second on realization, and the last on repercussion. It’s Carpenter with his fiercest political agenda and opposing to the underpinning consensus that we should accept the inevitable and conform along with everybody else and their dog. Advertising is all about the subliminal, it preys on our weaknesses, and does so surreptitiously. Supermarket checkouts are stuffed with eleventh-hour impulse buys, glossy publications and tantalizing confectionery all situated deviously in an attempt at encouraging we “OBEY.” You can’t beat us, so you may as well join us. Meanwhile we have broken our twenty and that pocketful of menial currency will either end up down the side of our couch or inside the cash register of the nearest 7-eleven, situated conveniently on the very next street corner.

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Contrary to public opinion that They Live be one of Carpenter’s finest, I’m not so sure you know. It is certainly amongst his most culturally astute pieces of work but is also frightfully uneven and, from an aesthetic standpoint at least, not his most affecting movie. Nevertheless, it does one thing quite brilliantly. It offers a glimpse beneath the veil, opens up that can of worms, and affords us with a fleeting vision of the truth which society would rather we not be made privy to. Nearly three decades on, bolshy large corporations have obliterated the competition, the little guy is all but extinct, and the wheels of industry show no signs of letting up their relentless trundle any time soon. Its message is a bleak one, concede to conform or you’ll invariably die trying not to. Think I prefered blissful ignorance. Now where did I leave my bubblegum?

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Dread Factor: 3/5

For the Dread-Heads: Prophets of doom will be in seventh heaven here. Much of your consternation will depend on whether or not you choose to walk behind the rows. On a metaphorical level, at least, it is downright chilling; its iconic creations stare straight into our souls with their beady pips and resistance is ultimately futile should we choose to don those shades.

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Read The Thing (1982) Appraisal

Read Dawn of The Dead (1978) Appraisal

Read Night of The Comet Appraisal

Read Videodrome Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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