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Retro Rental: ‘They Live’

They Live
Universal Pictures

[Each week, inspired by what's in theaters or in the news or even just by random firings of neurons, 'Retro Rental,' by film critic James Rocchi, looks at an older film on disc or download that links up to the here-and-now ...]

I was a little bit lost as to what I was going to write up for the Retro Rental this week — after all, we’d done something for ‘Prometheus‘ last week, and I’ve never seen one of the ‘Madagascar‘ films, and I’m sure there’d be no way I could catch up now if I just jumped on the series willy-nilly for this latest edition. But the universe will provide, and provide weird moments of synchronicity.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Stephen King’s 1993 short story ‘The Ten O’Clock People’ was slated to be made into a film; as Britt Hayes pointed out in covering the story, the plot of King’s  tale involves how the slightly-off biochemistry of people who are quitting smoking means they, unlike non-smokers or heavier smokers, can see bat-faced monsters walking among us, in positions of power, subtly influencing the mere humans they think can’t see them. (In King’s story, one of the beasts is — horrors — the Vice-President!) And as Britt pointed out, this pitch has no small amount of similarity to John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi trashterpiece ‘They Live,’ where special sunglasses allow Rowdy Roddy Piper to see the monsters and messages hidden behind the gauzy veil of the world we think we know. ‘Hmm,” I thought, “that King story sounds a lot like ‘They Live.’”

Then, of course, I actually read the news — of which no good can come, these days — about how the money Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker raised to fight against his recall vote was 31-plus-million dollars .. and how 66% of that money came from sources outside of Wisconsin. So the people of that state had essentially out-of-towners pouring a disproportionate — and, thanks to a weird loophole, unlimited — amount of cash into their election process to make a point. “Hmm,” I thought, “that story sounds even more like ‘They Live’ …”  (Let me note, right now, for the record, that there was plenty of odd money floating around the campaign to get Walker recalled in the first place from the other side — my objection is to both sides being able to do that kind of weird, expensive money-grubbing, not one or the other.)

For those of you who haven’t seen ‘They Live,’ it’s a sci-fi actioner made on the cheap by John Carpenter — of ‘The Thing’ and ‘Halloween’ — about Roddy Piper’s jobless but not hopeless wanderer realizing that the tough times he and other middle-class Americans are facing are all part of an alien plot — and when he realizes it’s the special sunglasses he’s found by chance making the scales fall from his eyes, he finds others to try them on (with some fist-based convincing required for Keith David, in a classic drag-out knock-down bit of choreography) to start a resistance. ‘They Live’ has a budget of roughly four dollars, but it goes a long way — when Piper puts on the glasses, the world goes black-and-white, with money now reading simply ‘THIS IS YOUR GOD’ and billboards actually subliminally screaming ‘OBEY.’  The film was a big influence in small ways — graffiti artist Shepard Fairey took a lot of his inspiration from the film’s design, and it’s fair to see a little of it in ‘The Matrix’ as well.

It’d be one thing if ‘They Live’  were just what it was — a coarse-and-cheap sci-fi satire with one of the most cheap closing shots in the history of the genre, literalizing the idea we’re being screwed over by the powers-that-be — but I guess the two ways it came to my mind this week prove that nothing has the power of a simple, strong idea. (Or, as Noel Coward said; “extraordinary how potent cheap music is …) the idea that ‘They Live’ could be right about a lot of ideas in 1988 was, to me at the time, kinda funny; I hate to say it, but the idea that it still applies as social commentary, however shabby and shaky, some 24 years later is just another sad reminder that eventually, let alone long enough, all comedy becomes tragedy.

(‘They Live’ is available on DVD and on iTunes.)

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