Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Doppelganger Trilogy

You Lost Me - Sleigh Bells (mp3)
Meltdown - Ash (mp3)

Who are we?
Whom do we trust and why?
Where do we turn in a crisis?
Do we know our own core essence? Do we even have a core essence?

Over the course of six years, director John Carpenter made one of the most thought-provoking B-movie trilogies of modern cinema: The Doppelganger Trilogy.

Few people know this because I just made it up. It wasn’t an official trilogy. And B-movies are, by general definition, rarely thought-provoking.

If the name John Carpenter seems familiar, yet you can’t quite place it, here’s some of his directorial efforts: Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Christine, The Fog.

The Doppelganger Trilogy began in 1982 with The Thing, consider by many to be his most underrated movie. Starman came in 1984 and, while a critical darling, fell on a deaf audience. The trilogy was completed with They Live in 1988.

The Thing is the closest of the three to a traditional horror film, and also the most bleak. Set on a remote Antarctic outpost, the film celebrates our human ability to struggle and fight even in the most fatalistic scenarios.

Starman is the most optimistic of the three. An alien civilization accepts our invitation, comes to visit, takes the form of Jeff Bridges, and learns the many ways humans are quirky, fun, and occasionally ball-jarringly violent*.

Finally, you get Rowdy Roddy Piper and They Live. That Carpenter picked a professional wrestler as his lead, as a character named “Nada,” sets the tone quite nicely. Mr. Nada faces off against a population of super-intelligent robot-aliens who have infiltrated and overtaken most of our upper crust and now control our media and corporations. They manipulate and hoarde while we humans, naive lemmings of the universe, buy and spend and work without the slightest hint of thought or introspection.

In the first, no one survives. (Sorta probably.)
In the second, everyone survives; some are even resurrected; and a new life will come soon.
In the third, They Live.
Which is to say, we don't, 'cuz we’re wasting our lives and might as well be dead.

They Live is the cheesy, full-length sci-fi translation of the famous line from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

In all three movies, the plot revolves around alien lifeforms who take human form. The alien can mimick us -- our appearance, our behavior, our language. In all three movies, it becomes clear that we have no easy way of identifying Us and Them.

Yet, this simple concept spawns three very different chains of events in the films and helps chart a compelling philosophical journey. It’s a plot device older than Shakespeare and one of the Bard’s favorites, but it's so much cooler when it involves aliens 'n' shit.

The Doppelganger Trilogy is not so much about the deceivers as about how we react to being deceived. By watching all three films, you are comforted that there are no simple unifying answers, no easy solutions, no clear binary choices or scenarios. The only true sin is choosing to ignore the deception altogether.

Lying to yourself to preserve your own comfort or deny your responsibilities is the unifying sin.

Ambition modestly executed lives longer for me than perfectly-concocted vanilla. John Carpenter will never be accused of having James Cameron’s marketing savvy and meticulousness, or having the genius eye of Scorsese, but this Carpenter was no hack, either. His best moments were B-movie bold and A-movie ambitious.

* -- (Side Note: The alien gets to hang out with Karen Allen, whom I find to be one of the most intensely attractive actresses of the ‘80s. She’s not traditionally model-hot, but the way she carries herself, and the power in those huge eyes... not all the feathered-back locks and hairspray in the world can create whatever sexy engine runs Karen Allen.)


troutking said...

Shawshank stole that line from Bob Dylan in It's Alright, Ma: "He that ain't busy bein' born is busy dyin'"

These movies sound interesting. I'll check 'em out. Thanks!

Billy said...

If you don't care for one, you likely won't care for any of them, so take your pick. I'm slowly going through all of his flicks on Amazon Prime right now. They're all flawed, but all in a sort of signature and consistent way. And most of them appeal to me despite their flaws.

Bob said...

I'd put Big Trouble In Little China up there with just about anything. And defend that with my fists.