Backstory: I was too young to vote for president in 1988 and wouldn’t have known whom to pick, anyway. I was a teenager and couldn't care less about the world of politics--but one thing I did care about (besides masturbating) was horror movies, and the release of a new John Carpenter film was always a big deal. So it was with great interest that I read an interview Carpenter did with Cinefantastique magazine to promote They Live, and it was interesting all right, just not in the way I expected. I wasn’t sure how hot I was to see the movie (I was disappointed to learn that it was more of an action movie than a horror movie), but Carpenter’s explanation of why he made They Live was a revelation.
I didn’t follow the news or seek out political commentary back then, so the only politics-related stuff I encountered was in entertainment: comics, music videos, TV, and of course movies. But it wasn’t enough to form a worldview; criticism of the president and his policies was either couched in satire that went over my head, or limited to gags about jellybeans and naps. I was aware that some of the adults in my life weren’t too keen on Reagan, but they never explained to me why, and I never asked them to. Most of what they said I didn’t care about, anyway, but John Carpenter was interesting and cool, so when he talked I listened.
And it was under the guise of discussing his new movie about alien invaders that can be only be seen with the use of magic sunglasses that Carpenter explained to me how things were and why I should care. It was a political awakening for me, in the pages of Cinefantastique, of all places. Which I guess makes perfect sense, actually.
As for the movie itself, well, it’s about as good as I remember it being the last time I saw it twenty years ago or something like that, which is to say, good, but not good enough that I felt the need to watch it again before twenty years (or something like that) went by. It’s half a great movie, with the first half neatly laying out the clever (and not too farfetched) premise that Republicans are really avaricious aliens from outer space who are keeping the human victims of their destructive profiteering docile with subliminal mind control. Rowdy Roddy Piper is a solid Kurt Russel substitute as two-fisted everyman John Nada, who joins up with an underground resistance movement to expose the aliens for what they are, and the movie chugs along at a brisk, entertaining clip till we get to the infamous back alley brawl where Nada and his construction worker friend Frank (Keith David) get into that reeeeeeealy long, knock-down, drag-out, kung-fu, bare knuckle smack down because Frank doesn’t believe Nada's story about aliens and won’t put on the sunglasses to see for himself. By the time that’s over, the film’s momentum has slowed considerably, and it’s like Carpenter has lost interest in the story he was telling, with the rest of the film collapsing under increasingly arbitrary and preposterous plotting that puts expediency before suspense or surprises.
Ah, but what a premise—and for the first half of the movie alone, They Live is worth revisiting all these years later. I bet right now, somewhere, some politically indifferent teenaged horror fan is watching it and totally having their mind blown. With the film now placed in historical context, though, I don’t think they’re gonna buy the happy ending.