This post has been awhile in the making. I watched They Live about two days after the shooting in Newtown. I was watching it and realized that it probably wasn’t the best idea to write about a movie where a guy shoots up a bank. There are always some shit-snorklers that emerge after tragedies that like to accuse people on the fringes of supporting so-and-so’s motives. So, in case it’s not clear, I don’t support mass shootings.
They Live is John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic about a race of aliens quietly enslaving humans. Like The Thing, They Live is about an unseen alien threat, but the tone is absolutely different from The Thing. The movie could be seen as a critique of Ronald Reagan’s America but the movie is eerily prescient and many of its critiques still apply today.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as Nada (A shout-out to the protagonist of the short story this movie was based on, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,”) a drifter arriving in California.
In Nada’s words, “I deliver a hard day’s work for the money. I just want the chance. It’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody’s got their own hard times these days.” Sound familiar?
He ends up getting work at a construction site where he befriends Frank (Keith David, you remember him as Childs in The Thing.) Frank takes Nada to a shantytown near a church where they can get food and showers. There’s even t.v., even though the air waves keep getting assaulted by some weird guy talking about being enslaved.
Nada notices weird activities around the church. People come and go late at night and there always seem to be helicopters nearby. He also finds this weird graffiti scrawled inside.
It’s not long before the police raid the shantytown, attack the church, and violently beat the blind street preacher.
Nada explores the church in the aftermath and finds a hidden box full of sunglasses. He takes a pair and hides the box. Nada sees the world for what it really is when he puts the sunglasses on. The people in power are hideous humanoid aliens and the world is full of subliminal messages to keep their human slaves from getting too smart or questioning too much.
Nada instantly freaks out when he realizes the true nature of reality. This includes killing a cop, taking his gun, walking into a bank, and announcing that, “I am here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble-gum!” He pretty much makes as big a spectacle of himself as he can and finds himself plastered all over the news.
Nada realizes that he needs help and tries to enlist Frank, who saw him on the news after his spree. This leads to one of the most iconic scenes in cult movies, the five-minute long fight between Frank and Nada. Seriously, it’s a little over five minutes long and has absolutely no music. Nada finally gets Frank to put on the sunglasses and they realize that this problem is way over their heads.
They manage to find a small band of resistors who survived the church massacre and, with the help of Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), a woman who Nada carjacked, infiltrate the aliens’ secret base. They find a mixed gathering of aliens and powerful humans that could really pass for a fundraiser for either major political party.
They even find a drifter they knew there, who tells them, “We all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team.”
It’s a little hard to recognize him all cleaned up but the drifter is George “Buck” Flowers, aka Hank the drunk from The Alpha Incident.
Nada makes it to the control tower where he destroys the broadcaster before being shot. Don’t worry, though, he delivers a final “fuck you” to the aliens.
Damn, I just loved this movie and I’m becoming a huge John Carpenter fan. Becoming? Ha, I am. I think what I liked about this movie is that it delivers a serious message but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s like a throwback to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers days where one hero knows the true nature of reality. The aliens even have these squat little camera UFO’s that can track your whereabouts.
Some people have criticized “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s performance but I don’t think he was bad. He definitely had more nuance and was more likeable than some of the leading men today. Plus, he was a pro-wrestler and what is wrestling but acting with more muscles?
What’s amazing to me is how much of an influence They Live still has on current culture. The fight between Timmy and Jimmy in the “Cripple Fight” episode of South Park is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of Nada and Frank’s fight. Duke Nukem quotes the kick-ass and bubble-gum line. The signs saying “Obey” have also been very influential on street artist Shepard Fairey. If you don’t know his work with “Obey” and “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” then you’re probably familiar with his Barack Obama “Hope” poster.
While I really enjoyed the movie and agreed with the message, I find it deeply disheartening that it’s twenty-four years later and the message is still so relevant. I try not to get too political on this blog but I have to admit, we live in a time where a presidential candidate can believe that 47% of Americans want to live off the dole. I’m positive he’s not the only politician with that belief–what I find grotesque is the disconnect from regular Americans who may have actually voted for him that this view suggests. It suggests a huge contempt for the workers that do the drudge work of this nation and the fact that this attitude still survives after a quarter of a century since the movie came out is the real horror.