by Jim Ridley
Where: The Belcourt
When: Midnight Friday & Saturday
Keep your Goonies, your Swayzes, your Molly Ringwalds: For those of us who endured the ’80s with gritted teeth, no movie captures the surly, is-this-shit-for-real mood of the decade like John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi satire — brushed off like dandruff by critics at the time, yet passed around like a secret handshake by the cinephiles at the video store where I worked.
Its premise rivals Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the movies’ greatest all-purpose metaphor for mass hypnosis and the threat of complacency: A brawny drifter (Rowdy Roddy Piper) puts on a pair of shades that lift the veil of a vast alien conspiracy — revealing everything from magazine covers (“CONFORM”) to dollar bills (“THIS IS YOUR GOD”) as weapons of subliminal consumerist indoctrination. While the rest of us sheep STAY ASLEEP and OBEY — Shepard Fairey seized upon the all-caps iconography — Piper literally battles to get others just to look through the damn glasses.
Apart from the director’s reliable widescreen panache, everything about the movie shrieks disrepute: The lead actor is a pro wrestler, the alien makeup would barely pass muster in a “Thriller” flash mob, and the movie’s centerpiece is a fistfight between Piper and skeptical blue-collar comrade Keith David that goes on for an eternal six minutes of screen time.
As always, though, trust a genre movie to kick in the doors where respectable cinema only tiptoes. In fact, consider the scare tactics and action heroics Carpenter’s own smokescreen: How else will a director get studio backing to make a movie that says the powers that be mean to roust the homeless, squelch dissent, keep races at each other’s throats and hoodwink the populace with shiny distractions? Put another way: He made an Occupy Wall Street (or Nashville) movie 23 years ahead of schedule. In the terms of Piper’s immortal catchphrase, Carpenter may be short on bubblegum — but man, does he kick ass.