John Carpenter’s They Live and the Dilemma of Retrospective Film Critique

Now that the world is far removed from the 1980’s and its many idiosyncrasies, it has become increasingly difficult to judge the quality of certain films of the era and the intentions of their filmmakers purely based on the works themselves. For example, it is easy to retroactively describe any given film from the 1980’s as “camp,” but the concept of camp is more closely related to intention rather than interpretation. So, when viewing a film from the 1980’s, if one applies the tastes and sentiments of the 21st century to their reading, they will almost certainly be tempted to see it as intentionally artificial and artless, thereby granting it the distinction of being postmodern and curiously sophisticated by today’s critics; but this seems to produce an inherently flawed analytical approach, and is not wholly sufficient for judging the merit of any given film.

The 1980’s was a decade marked by cultural and artistic extremes that, relative to other decades, have aged rather poorly. If a film such as The Breakfast Club (1985) were to be released today, it would either be praised for paying homage to a simpler, more wholesome time in the history of American cinema, or tossed aside as banal, unrefined, and perhaps even incompetent. This is pure speculation, of course, but one can turn on the television today and watch a plethora of cheap, hackneyed films that, if produced in the 1980’s, would most likely be considered superior, or at the very least adequate works by viewers and critics, both then and now. Spectators today would retroactively appreciate the nostalgia of the time, and be much more forgiving of technical blunders and substandard performances, whereas viewers and critics at the time of the film’s release would judge it based on the general criteria and expectations of the day, which were ostensibly lower than they are now.

This issue of retrospectively evaluating films is somewhat specific to the 1980’s, as the era is not so far away from us to be considered the distant past, but also just far away enough that it embodies a culture and place in history that is very different from the one we now live in. Additionally, as stated previously, the 1980’s was a decade of aesthetic extremes that has not been seen since, making it standout as a very distinct time period to compare to the present. The point of all this is to show that judging a film that is nearly 30 years old is problematic because, on the one hand, it is a reflection of its own time, and thus nostalgic for the contemporary viewer, but on the other, it is not necessarily up to the stylistic standards to which we hold films of the present. So, what is the solution? Are we to cease all critiques of past works (particularly those of the 1980’s) simply because we cannot determine if they are intentionally artless or merely poor film practice? I’ll take it a step further and question whether or not contemporary viewers are even capable of critiquing such films adequately. Perhaps we are simply too attached to the current ephemeral ideal of what quality films should look and sound like.

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They Live (1988)

This argument could be continued ad nauseam, inevitably leading back to the absence of objective truth inherent in any form of critique, rendering the judgments of different time periods without any validation or instruction. Thus, what we are left with is a seemingly inescapable question: must we leave the past to the past, or can we derive new and valuable meaning from it using modern-day sentiments, regardless of the artistic intentions of the time? In this essay, I hope to show that, while this question is certainly problematic, it is both possible and necessary to utliize contemporary critical interpretations when evaluating art forms of the recent past, looking specifically at John Carpenter’s 1988 film, They Live.

They Live follows a drifter named John Nada (Roddy Piper), who, after securing a job at a construction site, takes up residence at a local shantytown. He begins noticing strange occurrences, most of which involve a nearby church. When John investigates, he discovers that the church is actually a cover for an underground organization bent on revealing some kind of worldwide conspiracy. When the church is suddenly raided by the police, John manages to sneak in afterward and steal a box hidden inside the wall, only to discover it filled with sunglasses. Disappointed, John keeps a pair and continues about his day. However, he soon realizes that they are not ordinary sunglasses; they allow him to see the true reality underneath the facade of modern commercialism. When he looks at magazines or billboards, instead of seeing normal advertizements, he sees the messages that are hidden beneath the surface, such as “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” and “STAY ASLEEP.” John also sees that some of the people around him are not really people at all, but aliens who are responsible for controlling the human race through these subliminal messages. Determined to wake people up to this morbid reality, John begins killing the aliens, and eventually joins up with the organization that created the sunglasses, in the hope that they might defeat the aliens and free the world from their oppressors.

It is important to take note of reviews at the time of the film’s release in order to properly evaluate the critical response to They Live, and how that response has generally changed since its initial release. In Janet Maslin’s 1988 review, she states that Carpenter “directed the film with B-movie bluntness, but with none of the requisite snap,” and derided the film’s “crazy inconsistency” (Maslin). Similarly, Richard Harrington was critical of Carpenter, believing that he did not have “the talent to bring [They Live] to life,” while also describing the acting as “wretched” and the effects “second-rate” (Harrington). While Michael Wilmington praised the film’s premise and subversive politics, he admits that the film suffers from radical shifts in tone, as well as “silly lines, plot lapses and goofball action scenes,” but that you can “forgive the movie everything because of the sheer nasty pizazz of its central concept” (Wilmington). The reviews (of which these are only a few examples) are mixed, but tend to be negative, painting the film as a slipshod production centered around a handful of good ideas.

As the years have passed, critics have generally looked on They Live more favorably. In his 2014 review for Rolling Stone, Joshua Rothkopf insists that They Live “deserves to be thought of as a masterpiece.” Though he views Carpenter as a rather sad figure, weakly battling the inequalities of society and critical ambivalence toward his work, Rothkopf writes that They Live is a “bona-fide act of subversion from a filmmaker who invested his famous style of clean widescreen compositions and Hawksian gab with something larger, something flattering to the audience’s intelligence” (Rothkopf). Slant Magazine reviewer Calum Marsh praises Carpenter for articulating “working-class anger in response to social iniquity without sounding self-righteous,” all while “retaining the surface appeal of its B-movie origins” (Marsh). In 2012, film critic Dennis Schwartz gave They Live a B+ rating, citing its inherent entertainment value and political messages, while also criticizing Carpenter for not taking his attack on the ruling class far enough, and allowing the film to descend into tired action-movie cliches (Schwartz). In D. Harlan Wilson’s analysis of the reaction to They Live, he admits that critics have always been polarized by the film, but that it has nonetheless become an “unequivocal cult articulation.” For those “Pro-Carpenter” reviewers, as Wilson calls them, the film is saved by a “clear meta-referential quality, [and] an inherent filmic awareness and celebration of its own badness (Wilson). Though the reviews still tend to be mixed, critics have generally grown to see the film in a more positive light, praising the subversive politics and low-brow aesthetics that are either read as paying homage to 50’s sci-fi, or purposefully crafted camp.

It is clear that sentiments have changed over the years, so much so that today’s critics are more inclined to look back at They Live as a postmodern work of genius, embodying a B-movie visual style and narrative, while simultaneously producing an overt anticapitalist message. So who is to be believed? The critics of the film’s release, who saw it as a clever message bungled by incompetent direction, or contemporary critics, defending its apparent flaws as postmodern stylization? Naturally, there is no perfect answer to this question. However, if one is to make any kind of judgement one way or the other, they must take into account the history of film criticism.

They Live (1988)

Most of the aforementioned reviews are journalistic in nature, insofar as they wish to anticipate the desires of their respective audiences when giving their opinions; this also meant that they generally adhered to the prevailing ideologies within film critique. In the 1980’s, auteur theory was the principal concept that underpinned most critics’ analyses, thereby leading to an emphasis on the more practical elements of filmmaking, namely writing, editing, directing of actors, and the like. Postmodern theory had not yet made a significant impact on film criticism, particularly in the United States, nor had various other schools of thought outside of auteur theory. Thus, reviewers of the time were somewhat limited in the scope of their analyses, failing to see past the They Live‘s B-movie aesthetics. However, contemporary critics have utilized a variety of different film theories, from feminist theory to structuralism and on to postmodernism. This approach allowed for more informed critiques that were better able to ascertain inherent value (wherever it may have been present) beyond the relatively poor production values. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with auteur theory, or the reviews that stem from it, it is merely one approach to film criticism, and a particularly limiting approach at that.

While temporal distance from a subject of critique does breed some kind of nostalgic sentiment, it also allows the spectator to view the work freely, unencumbered by the biases one might hold for contemporary works and culture. A filmmaker’s intentions are virtually irrelevant, as the spectator has the privilage of reading the film and evaluating it from different vantage points. Critiquing in a postmodern (or even post-postmodern) era allows for readings that are informed by a larger scope of film history, as well as a greater variety of theories and ideologies linked to film analysis.

None of this is to say that older critiques are unnecessary or without value; on the contrary, reviews from a given time help shed light on the sensibilities and ideologies of the past, just as contemporary critiques will one day provide the same value for future generations. These analyses, whether focused on current or past works, allow for thoughtful contemplation on our own times and the ideologies that shape our culture. Additionally, these interpretations help reframe and reevaluate history, giving us new insight into past works, so that they will not only be remembered, but continue to have a lasting cultural impact.

Harrington, Richard. “‘They Live.’” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Nov. 1988, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/theylive.htm.

Marsh, Calum. “They Live | Film Review.” Slant Magazine, 1 Dec. 2013, www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/they-live.

Maslin, Janet. “Review/Film; A Pair of Sunglasses Reveals a World of Evil.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Nov. 1988, www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=940DE1D91439F937A35752C1A96E948260.

Rothkopf, Joshua. “Why ‘They Live’ Is a Subversive 1980s Masterpiece.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 27 Oct. 2014, www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/how-they-live-took-on-the-republicans-and-won-20141027.

Schwartz, Dennis. “They Live.” Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, 9 May 2012, homepages.sover.net/~ozus/theylive.html.

Wilmington, Michael. “Movie Reviews : Mind-Control Over Matter in Carpenter‘They Live’.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 4 Nov. 1988, articles.latimes.com/1988-11-04/entertainment/ca-1283_1_john-carpenter.

Wilson, D. Harlan. “With They Live, John Carpenter Hid Political Commentary in a Campy B-Movie.” Slate Magazine, 3 Aug. 2017, www.slate.com/articles/arts/conspiracy_thrillers/2017/08/john_carpenter_s_they_live_is_the_rare_b_movie_with_a_serious_message.html.

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