Film Micrœview #118: They Live (1988)
08.09.2014 § Leave a comment
Amusing but uneven and drawn out.
Main complaint is that I wish they’d gotten to the sunglasses sooner — the B&W subliminal-world visuals were the best thing it had going for it.
And also the main character’s goofy personality didn’t really come out until that point either. In fact I read him TOTALLY different before he started opening his mouth more — turns out to be a total doofus and loony. I felt a bit cheated, since his only three real lines before that were about making sure he knows who’s who and what’s what before choosing, believing in America, and having patience — none of which speaks to his sudden jumping-to-conclusions and brutal reaction.
If he’s so dumb as to put his hand out on the table like that right away as he also immediately resorts to violence, rather than maybe calmly approach the folks who manufactured the sunglasses and start to try to figure out why they were made — how is he smart enough to realize that something is wrong? Shouldn’t he have just given in further to the messages, simply reading them at face value now? I mean, this would have been a completely different movie if there had been any signs that this guy had leanings against this sort of media manipulation — and I suspect it was intentional for him not to be that way.
Perhaps this is just a parable about how Americans are all too dumb to do anything about the spectacle, even with it revealed for them. In that case, the ease with which the guy is able to break their signal and thwart their entire designs on earth would be similar to my feelings about the “victory” at the end of Elysium, by which I mean to say that Carpenter is contributing to the seduction of the audience into believing something has been accomplished while ironically they are just slipping deeper into the sleep. The mere fact that the issues in society are deflected off of humans and onto aliens makes me question it’s true confrontation of these issues or if so if it’s backfiring.
And as for the anti-Reagan allegory, a lot of it was undercut by this. He just goes around murdering suddenly everyone who looks different — isn’t that a bit problematic? And he goes around ridiculing aliens trying to appear as attractive women — isn’t that kind of missing the point as well, working against its ideals?
The guy really was super dumb — and it became frustrating that he was thoroughly unable to communicate in words. “PUT ON THE GLASSES” over and over, opting to fight a guy he “doesn’t want to fight” rather than taking a fucking second to just take a shot at stating in words “if you put on the glasses you will see that there are aliens and manipulative messages secretly all around us”. I mean maybe the idea was that such a thought was so dangerous that it can’t be told without inviting INSTANT INSTITUTIONALISM, that the only way to carry someone over to your side of the belief is to force it upon them. It felt true to his character, but unfortunately this was just way too drawn out and frustrating to behold.
The action scenes were weirdly passive — lots of frantic looking around — not enough taking action — and when action was taken it was weird (like rescuing that young man — kind of drove home the He-Man blond mullet over bulging homoeroticism 80’s vibe).
Nice cinematography, actually — I could tell this was the same guy Carpenter worked with on Mouth of Madness — something very spatial about his work. Especially in the infiltration climax, down those labyrinthine office hallways with the weird vertical pink stripes, danger possible to emerge from many places at once. Though the side-view close-ups of the barrels of their guns as they took out the troops were weird and unprecedented by anything else in the visual language of the film.
The woman character had a lot of potential, but then they had to go and switch up her role — surprise! — twice, turning her into a mere plot object rather than a force of intelligent agency.
The long opening set the bar high for the sociological elements the film might look at. It brought up issues of race and class but didn’t adequately address those. Mexicans, blacks, labor unions, the US turning into a third world country — all of this was broached but tossed aside. The visuals of a shantytown with the LA skyline rising over it, with a wall of police bulldozing it down, is among the most compelling images I’ve seen recently. But why are all the aliens white? Never saw one inhabiting a non-white. And why are there SO many of them here? If we’re livestock but not for pets or eating, what then? If they enjoy human pleasures (as many scenes suggest, but the final shot drives home) that could have been rife for exploration. It could have been funny or serious, but it was just nothing here. We don’t learn much about the aliens at all, really, and could have spent a lot of the wasted time of this movie doing so.
Final gripe — the wall of cops killing all the “terrorists” was intense, but why wouldn’t the cops have sealed off all the exits before attacking? That would have made more sense realistically, but then also added value to the fact that our two heroes had the special teleporter watch. Dumb writing.
So I guess the only reason I say “shrug” rather than “bad” is that I’m disappointed. Which is to say that it piqued my interest and managed to set something up that could have gone somewhere and just didn’t. Except now that I re-read the review I have switched to bad.
And I can see some kindredness between this and Videodrome, though I’ll take Videodrome any day.