Terrifying Tuesday's a bitch... and she's back in heat : They Live (1988)

If one is to believe the Wikipedia entry (and who am I to say) then sunglasses have their roots in 12th Century China, but did not come into the popular use until the early 1900’s when the stars of early silent films wore them to protect from the bright arc lighting. They finally came to the mass market when Foster Grant started selling them in stores and brought to us the eternal question, ‘Who’s behind those Foster Grants?” As groundbreaking as the invention of sunglasses was, they just don’t have the power to save the human race from an invading force of aliens who look like Slim Goodbody’s ugly cousins. For shades like that, you have to call on John Carpenter, and the man behind them, Rowdy Roddy Piper.

They Live (1988) features Piper as Nada, a down on his luck construction worker struggling to make ends meet. When a local church of subversives gets bulldozed, Nada investigates the area and steals a box. Ducking into an alleyway, he opens it up to find it filled with dozens of identical pairs of black sunglasses. It was not exactly the haul Nada was looking for, but when he dons a pair of the specs, he suddenly finds out that the world is filled with subliminal advertising. Signs read “Obey”, encourage you to “Marry and Reproduce”, and the money appears to say “This is Your God.” Making matters worse, the government has been infiltrated with an alien race, but only Nada, behind his sunglasses, knows what’s going on. After finding other believers, Nada embarks on a mission to disrupt the signal that keeps the aliens hidden and rescue the world from the invading menace.

John Carpenter made They Live right between one of his most successful films, 1987’s Prince of Darkness, and one of his least, the 1992 Chevy Chase flop Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Released in 1988 as the Reagan era ended, Carpenter clearly felt that the advent of modern advertisement technique, the commercialism of the political system, and the disaffection of the populace had contributed to make us sheeplike as a culture. The society in Carpenter’s film is not only unaware to the alien invaders, they are also not even curious. As civil liberties begin to fade, the public remains blissfully unconcerned, kept asleep by the alien’s constant subliminal coercion. Only a few resolute folks Nada meets along the way share his need to rebel and they are marginalized as nut jobs and conspiracy theorists.

In the twenty one years since the release of They Live, the themes of the film have in no way been diminished. In fact, in many of the ways with how pervasive media has become, it has becomes even more insightful. I know it seems strange to think that a film featuring a wrestler could carry any weight, but it’s not. Roddy Piper, the wrestler often cast as Hulk Hogan’s main foe during the era when Hulkamania was running wild over you, landed the part after Carpenter met him at Wrestlemania III. Now I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that the part was originally intended by Carpenter’s frequent cohort, Kurt Russell, but I don’t know if his brand of macho bravado would have fit the role as well. Piper, who never made another decent film, is perfect as Nada the blue collar warrior. Where Russell would have brought movie star gravitas to the role, Piper turned his fame as a villain to the masses on its ear. Nada was full of the same jingoistic flavor that stirred in the ’80’s heart while listening to Springsteen and Mellencamp, but Nada is a man of action. Perhaps even a little too much action. Nah. There can never be too much.

From the moment Piper’s Nada discovers the existence of the aliens, the film becomes a barrage of action sequences. Kicking off with the infamous “Kick ass and chew bubble gum” line, Nada proves himself to be quite the deadeye when taking out alien baddies, but when he has to throw down with his pal Frank (Keith David) prepare for one of the great slobberkockers to ever be put to film. The scene, which David and Piper rehearsed for three weeks, was only intended to last a few seconds, but after witnessing the chorography the two had put together, Carpenter left the full five minute scene intact. What Bullet is to car chases, They Live should be to ’80’s action sequences.

Now I briefly mentioned him, but Piper’s Nada doesn’t need many things in this world, but one that was truly necessary was a good buddy. Keith David’s Frank was just the man for the job, but more than that, Keith David is the man. If you don’t think you know who he is, after you hear his voice, there is no mistaking that you’ve heard it before. Starting his career as cult as it gets, with an uncredited role in Rudy Ray Moore’s Disco Godfather, David landed the role as Nada’s pal by impressing Carpenter with his work in The Thing. Since then, from character roles to videogames to providing the narrative for Ken Burn’s Jazz miniseries, Keith David is an actor I always forget to seek out, but he seems to be everywhere these days.

As usual, Carpenter supplied the score working for the last time with seven time collaborator Alan Howarth, and as usual, the director knew well what his film needed and the sound meshes with his vision very well. This was the second occasion for Carpenter to collaborate with cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe, and the look of the film holds much of its charm. They Live is supposed to be set in the near future, but the feel is more the dead end streets of industrial America like the film might turn to be about an auto strike at any moment. This feeling is directly in contrast to the slick, clean, perfect feeling that is projected through any of the alien controlled media. The delineation between the real world and the world of advertising and media has rarely been explored with more fervor than in this film.

They Live has got a bit of something for anyone, and I think it’s one of those titles that appeals readily across the boundaries of cult movie fan and the mainstream. It's part action film, part comedy, part science fiction, part comedy, part manifesto, and an all around enjoyable time. Having a party? Put on They Live. An afternoon with nothing to do? Put on They Live. Fed up with the news? Put on They Live, follow it up with Network, and chase it with Idiocracy. Sure you may loose faith in humanity, but never give up. Just run out of bubblegum.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobAugust 4, 2009 at 4:59 PM

    "They live" is one of my all time favorite cult movies (i`ve seen it over 200 times). Meg foster was pretty tasty back in `88 and that naked chick at the end of the film was pretty hot to, actually that pregnant chick in the office wasn`t a bad looking bird either. By the way, brilliant reveiw.


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