Cal came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and he’s all outta bubblegum…
Who made it?: John Carpenter (Director/Writer), Larry J. Franco (Producer), Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions.
Who’s in it?: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason.
Tagline: “You see them on the street. You watch them on TV. You might even vote for one this fall. You think they’re people just like you. You’re wrong. Dead wrong.”
IMDb rating: 7.1/10.
Although director John Carpenter masterminded a number of cinematic gems during the 1980s, They Live is arguably his coolest and most enjoyable effort from the decade. Written by Carpenter himself, it’s a delightful sci-fi action romp, bolstered by an astute screenplay which mixes social commentary, exciting action and terrific one-liners, approaching RoboCop levels of greatness. And despite being made in 1988, They Live has aged remarkably well, remaining every bit as sharp and entertaining as it has always been. They Live has to be one of the most underrated and overlooked pictures on Carpenter’s filmography, too, which is a shame because it’s absolutely worthy of a large audience.
At the centre of the story is a nameless, unemployed drifter referred to as “Nada” (Roddy Piper) – the Spanish word for “nothing.” Arriving in Los Angeles, Nada is soon hired at a construction site, and takes shelter at a local shantytown with the company of co-worker Frank (Keith David). Nada begins noticing strange activities at a church across the street, and his interest piques all the more after it’s raided by a SWAT team. He soon happens upon a box of strange sunglasses inside the church, which essentially allow the wearer to see “the truth.” Putting on a pair, Nada realises that the world around him is populated with extraterrestrials who have assimilated themselves into human society, transmitting secret messages through signs and billboards. Taking up a firearm, Nada sets out to fight back against the invaders, enlisting the assistance of Frank in his quest.
As with most of Carpenter’s filmmaking oeuvre, They Live is packaged with societal commentary and political satire, endowing the production with more class than a typical shoot-‘em-up. To be sure, the satire is not exactly subtle, with the sunglasses revealing that billboards and magazines actually say simple words like “Obey,” but it’s effectual nevertheless, and it has only grown more pertinent with each passing year. In this sense, They Live is perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory movie. Even though it’s fiction (at least we hope this stuff isn’t real), there is a sense of truth to the proceedings, playing out as a warning sign to those who blindly follow the lead, unwilling to be open-minded enough to accept that the world around us may not be as cut-and-dried as we’re led to believe by the powers above us. They Live is nuanced in this sense, but it’s not heavy-handed – the movie still plays as a fun actioner, rather than a dour exploration of big ideas. And while the satire plays out in the context of a simplistic action movie, the core ideas linger and the film is open-ended, making it a rousing example of entertaining, thought-provoking cinema.
They Live again demonstrates that Carpenter knows his way around a set-piece. The action is slow to start, but once Nada discovers the glasses, They Live almost never relents, delivering in a big way. Perhaps the highlight of the entire production is an achingly funny alley fight between Piper and David, which is exceedingly brutal and beset with some of the best, funniest tough guy dialogue in the history of cinema. The sequence was meant to be short, but Piper and David went for broke, and Carpenter allowed the behemoths to do their thing. Its great stuff. They Live also comes alive in several other scenes, with awesome gun battles spotlighting Piper in ass-kicking mode. Admittedly, the film does seem to end a bit too quickly, with budget constraints visible during the rather slight climax, but this is nit-picking. What matters is that They Live plays beautifully and is scarcely boring, thanks to Carpenter’s skilful pacing.
For a WWE wrestler, Piper is not that bad of an actor, playing his role of Nada with assurance and flair. He understands the art of one-liners, spouting several witty zingers that has this reviewer in fits of laughter. He’s a hell of a lot better than the wrestler-turned-actors of more recent years. Piper also shares wonderful chemistry with Keith David, who’s every bit as good as his co-star. David is a charismatic presence, and he’s really on top of his game here, proving to be another reason why They Live is so damn enjoyable.
They Live deserves more credit than it receives. It’s not Carpenter’s best movie, but it’s definitely one of his definitive masterworks, an excellent demonstration of his trademarks idiosyncrasies and quirks as a filmmaker. Plus, the focused direction, clever writing and top-flight acting has allowed They Live to date gracefully – in 2013, it has lost practically none of its charm or impact. In fact, it probably plays better today than it ever did, as the thematic undercurrents continue to become more relevant, and the movie possesses a special brand of goofy 80s charm that today’s blockbusters just cannot replicate. Better, it finishes on a high note – the final scene closes the door with a huge laugh, reminding us that Carpenter has always had a good sense of humour.
What else would it be?
- The line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum” was ad-libbed by Roddy Piper. According to director John Carpenter, Piper had taken the line from a list of ideas he had for his pro wrestling interviews. The line was later famously used (and often wrongly attributed) in Duke Nukem 3D.
- There is a thinly veiled jab at Siskel & Ebert, with both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as aliens. “Siskel” is denouncing George A. Romero and Carpenter as too violent. (In fact, Siskel had written a scathing review of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.)
- The eponymous scene in South Park‘s “Cripple Fight” was taken blow-by-blow from the fight between Frank and Nada in the alley.