Thursday, January 3, 2013

It Came from the '80s: They Live

by Patrick Bromley
I have come here to chew bubble gum and talk about They Live. And chewing bubble gum does not make for interesting reading.

I currently write three ongoing features here at F This Movie!: It Came from the '80s, Heavy Action and Movies I Love. They Live could fit into any or all of these categories. I chose to cover it in ICFT80s because it's so specific to the decade; unlike past entries like Flash Gordon or Dragonslayer, the movie could only have been made in the '80s not because of its genre elements but because it exists specifically to comment upon and critique Reagan America. It's not just OF the '80s. It's ABOUT the '80s.

There were only a handful of movies that I was DYING to see as a kid. Ghostbusters. Back to the Future. Predator. Six Pack, for some reason. And They Live. It had nothing to do with John Carpenter, whose movies I was aware of as a 10-year old, but to little end as I had no concept of the auteur theory. It had everything to do with the fact that I loved action movies and I loved "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and this movie offered two great tastes that taste great together. I did not get to see it during its brief theatrical run, and had to wait until it showed up on The Movie Channel (I do not know why we subscribed to The Movie Channel) to see it. It premiered at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and I remember hoping that dinner would not be ready so that I could at least see the beginning. I made it as far as the opening title before being called to the table. Such was the crushing disappointment of my childhood.
Like I said, I was (and am) a huge "Rowdy" Roddy Piper fan. I was way into wrestling for much of the '80s, and watching his WrestleMania III retirement match, during which he shaved the head of "Adorable" Adrian Adonis in front of a record-setting Pontiac Silverdome audience ON MY BIRTHDAY, was one of the defining moments of my childhood. Every wrestler rode in a little mini-ring down the aisle. Piper WALKED. A crazy fan ran into the rang after Piper won; Piper, visibly startled, hugged the guy (it was only when the PPV cameras cut to the faraway wide shot that you could see multiple security guys storm the ring and tackle the shit out of the guy). And in listening to the commentary on They Live (available for years on the Region 2 DVD and finally available on the Scream Factory! Blu-ray that my beautiful wife gave to me as a Christmas gift), I learned that the reason Piper retired from the WWF was so that he could go make They Live. Vince McMahon was not keen on letting Piper go off and shoot a movie that he wasn't directly involved with, so Piper quit. Because he is a badass and he rules. And while he would return to wrestling over and over again and diminish the coolness of that gesture, and while he would never make another movie as good as They Live (only Hell Comes to Frogtown would come close, and it's not close AT ALL), everything converged at this one point in 1987/88 for Piper to have his career peak.

For those who don't already know, Piper (who was hand-picked by Carpenter for the movie) plays John Nada, a homeless drifter who arrives at a construction site in Los Angeles and finds work ("I got m'own tools."). He's befriended by another construction worker, Frank (Keith David), who brings Nada to a kind of camp for the homeless. There, the people gather around a single black and white TV that keeps breaking up as a crazy man rants nonsensical, prophetic messages. A nearby church is holding what appears to be a non-stop choir rehearsal. Something is clearly going on, and Nada finally decides to investigate. All he finds is an empty building -- the choir is a recording, and there are boxes of sunglasses everywhere. Weird.

That night, the shantytown (that's right) is raided by police, and many of the homeless are executed. Nada escapes and goes back for the sunglasses; when he puts them on, things look...different. Half the population is revealed to be an alien race, surrounded by propaganda commands like "OBEY" and "REPRODUCE" on what appears to us as advertising. Aliens, it seems, are secretly taking over the Earth by taking all the money and resources and oppressing those beneath them. So Nada picks up a gun, recruits Frank (after the world's longest fight scene) and a cable TV station employee (Meg Foster), and starts making moves to expose the alien conspiracy and shut it down fast.
Pretty much every single thing in They Live is still relevant today, except there is no internet in They Live. Otherwise, the movie's portrayal of an America in which the 1% (or the 47% for you Mitt Romney fans) control and, in a way, repress much of the country is basically accurate, at least in its biggest, broadest, most satirical strokes. Looking at the movie in 2012, the alien resistance plays like Carpenter's critique of the current Democratic party -- there is a lot of meeting, a lot of planning, a lot of strategizing, but nothing much getting done. Nada comes along and GETS SHIT DONE. He's what we need. For the record, neither I nor John Carpenter are actually advocating picking up a gun and shooting people as a means of getting things done; that needs to be pointed out in today's climate. The movie is exploring these ideas within the framework of a sci-fi/action movie, which explains the violence. But it's an angry movie, too, and Carpenter hopes that waking people up to what's going on will inspire them to address the problem. Not to ignore it, like Keith David does before he's forced by Nada to wear the sunglasses and wake up. Not to sell out, like the George "Buck" Flowers character (who begins the movie as a homeless man and ends it as a tuxedo-clad fat cat) does by choosing to align himself with the aliens.

One of the movie's masterstrokes is that it avoids making Nada a jaded cynic from the start. He's not Snake Plissken. Despite the fact that he's homeless, despite the fact that he's wandering from place to place practically begging for work, Nada believes that things will work out. If he keeps working hard, the country will meet him halfway and he will be rewarded. He's Joe the Plumber, only not a sellout or an idiot. It makes the betrayal by the country in which he placed such faith that much more powerful (though there are hints at his inner cynic when he says something along the lines of "It figures it would be something like this..."). The flip side is the Keith David character, who simply DOESN'T WANT TO KNOW. He doesn't want trouble. He doesn't want to get involved. He is, as so many are, willfully ignorant. In Nada and Frank, Carpenter creates two characters whose fundamental belief systems are what enables such a class disparity (alien takeover) -- denial and ignorance. The way he shakes them awake is part of what has made the movie so famous -- the crazy long back alley fight scene (parodied in an episode of South Park, which I suspect more people have seen than have seen They Live). Yes, it is ridiculous. Yes, it is indulgent. Why exactly does Carpenter go on for as long as he does? I really can't say. I guess if you're going to cast a guy who does elbow drops and suplexes for a living, you might as well have him do elbow drops and suplexes in your movie. Play the strengths of your actors. If you put Zoë Bell in your movie, you better strap her to the hood of a car. Also, please put Zoë Bell in your movie.

They Live is often credited with being a masterpiece. I don't think it is. CALM DOWN IT IS STILL GREAT. But the movie has a bunch of pacing problems -- it's slow to start, though it has an interesting buildup. The middle section, after Nada puts on the sunglasses, is great. The last act in the underground tunnels is kind of a mess. Nada's ties to Holly are poorly defined. The climax is rushed. The movie has its problems.

None of them matter.

They Live is remembered as a masterpiece because, to quote Film Crit Hulk, it works in all the ways it needs to work. The dialogue is spare but clever. The one-liners, for which the movie is maybe best known ("Something something bubble gum something something kick ass...") are terrific. Carpenter's score, which makes the movie feel like a western, rules. It has a GREAT idea at its center. Roddy Piper's performance is iconic. It's the kind of movie that has so many things to like and so many high points that they tend to wipe out any of the problems -- you're left with the rush, not with the nitpicks.
There is nothing subtle about They Live, but that's one of its best qualities. Everything from the makeup to the sets to the special effects have a cheap, B-movie feel to them. The politics are heavy-handed and angry. But unlike a lot of movies that have clever ideas or big, bold statements to make, They Live manages to be a good film even without the politics. Whether or not you agree with Carpenter's slant or even if you don't notice it (and I'm not sure that's possible), They Live is a pretty kickass action movie. In theory, it should have made Roddy Piper a movie star, but there's a big difference between being the star of a Carpenter movie and being a star in anything else. That's because there's only one Carpenter, and only he knows how to use his heroes. Though the director made a few more good movies, They Live is probably his last best one.


  1. Also, if I am remembering correctly, the movie has one of the greatest last shots...

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly on this film.
    When I rewatched the blu ray, I imagined what this film would have been like with Kurt Russell in the lead, but alas, he was busy making "Tequila Sunrise."

    Carpenter's choice was the right one and I like how the commentary and interview on the disc help put the film in even more context.

    George Romero has stated that "They Live" is the one film he wished he had made.

    Oh, and seeing "Wrestlemania 3" on Pay Per View (Viewer's Choice) for $50 was a defining moment in my life too. :) Somehow I just never got back into wrestling again after the Hulkster beat King Kong Bundy.

    1. Thanks, Cameron. That Romero quote is not surprising; They Live feels like one of his movies in a lot of ways.

      Thanks for the video of Piper's "last" match. It was the best. And not to pull an '80s wrestling nerd card, but Hogan v. Bundy (in a STEEL CAGE) was WrestleMania 2. III's main event was Hogan v. Andre the Giant.

  3. That's right, my mistake. Ugh. I can't believe I confused them. It's early out here in California. LOL.

    1. No big deal! They both fall under the category of "People Hogan Should Not Be Able to Bodyslam but TOTALLY DOES."

  4. Off topic, but when the season 2 premiere of "Eastbound and Down" had Kenny Powers coming to the mound with Hulk Hogan's theme blasting, I practically choked on the soda I was sipping.

  5. That fight scene is right up there with the wedding in "The Deer Hunter".

    "Yeah, this is great but can we get on with it!!!"

  6. "They Live"'s fight scene comes a distant second to Anne Bancroft vs. Patty Duke in "The Miracle Worker".

    1. This may be the first time in recorded history that Rowdy Roddy Piper has been linked to Helen Keller...

  7. Replies
    1. During the only snow day granted during our time at U of I, my friends and I played spiked eggnog-fueled Trivial Pursuit. One of us, three sheets to the wind, answered the question "Who was the first woman to make the first successful Transfer-Atlantic flight?" with "Anne Frank." Which, if you think about it, makes sense because she was trying to escape the Nazis.

      I am drunk right now.

  8. My new-to-me movie of the day:

    Leos Carax's HOLY MOTORS (2012) in theaters.

    Imagine if Jamie Foxx and the yellow cab in "Collateral" were, respectively, a nice older lady and a big white limousine. And, instead of driving Tom Cruise around L.A. to perform contract hits for an unknown/unseen boss, this vehicle drives a man around Paris to perform contract _____, and we as the audience are the known/seen bosses (set-up by a nice looking-at-the-audience reverse-perspective shot similar to one in Haneke's "Amour").

    If Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were French they'd probably be rolled into Leon Carax, and "Holy Motors" would be the tribute to the craft of acting and creating a 'magic movie moment' (an acknowledged-to-be-fake-but-sincerely-performed moment that a collective audience or individual embraces) that "adaptation" was to the art of screenwriting. "Holy Motors" tests its audience, over and over again, and even throws the equivalent of a "Duck Amuck" Rorschach tests that, rather than confuse, enhance the dream-like state that the movie achieves early and never lets go off without ever being confusing or repellent (like Joe Wright's theater-artifice take on "Anna Karenina" came across).

    "Holy Motors" will make a tremendous double-bill with "Cloud Atlas," except none of the talented actors in that ambitious misfire can hold a candle to the chameleon-like tour-de-force performance by Denis Lavant. And while the Wachowski's and Tom Tykwer, God bless them, were as concerned with making a blockbuster movie along with the 'hook' of multi-character-in-different-make-up casting, "Holy Motors" raises its own ante by daring the viewer to buy/reject the sincerity and 'magic' that each of its vignettes either achieves or not (it'll be up to each individual viewer to make that call).

    Personally I found Lavant makes for a better crazy man than a dying old man, but even the latter benefits from Carax knowing when exactly to de-emphasize or emphasize the artifice of its premise. I've often referred to a perfect casting choice (for example, Christopher Reeve in "Superman") as the best special effect that no computer or special effect technician will ever be able to replicate (something Robert Zemeckis has spent the past decade proving conclusively). "Holy Motors" embraces the joy, sadness and artifice that 'magic movie moments' bring to both performer and audience alike, and we're all the better because of it.

    Now excuse me while I reshuffle my Top 10 list for 2012... again!

    1. Almost forgot: Best use of the 'Muybridge naked atheletes' early footage... EVER! :-P Also, the above is my own personal interpretation of what "Holy Motors" meant to me but the film is constructed in such a way that is widely open to many others interpretations.

  9. Not saying it's better than Halloween or anything but I would rather watch They Live more than any other Carpenter movie other than The Thing. It's crazy rewatchable.

    J.M.- I think I enjoyed your review for Holy Motors more than watching the movie itself. I was on board with it for about an hour then it stopped being clever/interesting and became the worst kind of art-house anything goes.

    1. Thanks Adam. We'll have to agree to disagree on "Holy Motors," except for one scene (that has more to do with my own distate for a specific movie genre) that movie just keeps throwing curveball after curveball that climaxes at and with the craziest kind of stuff you can think of, yet feels completely natural to what Carax is doing. I love this movie. :-)

  10. Patrick talked about "They Live" in the 'Alien Invasion' podcast (start at the 50 min. mark). For those of you that are programmed to not read because that's sooo 2012., there's your alternative. :-)

    I saw "They Live" for the first time 13 months ago at midnight during a Carpenter retrospective at IFC Center with a packed house full of 'Occupy Wall St.' protesters (remember them?). You couldn't have asked for a better crowd. The budget is too small for its crazy ambitions (those floating drones) and the ending is super lame (IMO), but its never less than a fun and enjoyable ride. How come Roddy Piper didn't become a huge action movie star from this? He's oozes charisma and has screen presence. Backed by Carpenter's reliably-solid direction and deft outlandish premise, "They Live" takes its sweet time establishing characters and set-ups so that it's cinematically satisfying (that crazy-long fight) and bonding with its intended audience. It's a great popcorn flick and further proof that up until "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" in '92 John Carpenter was on a major 14-year creative roll the likes of which he (and we) will never see again.

  11. They Live is one of the few liberal movies I absolutely love. Just like with Escape from L.A. (which features I guess in John Carpenter’s mind what the USA would like with Pat Robertson as the President), Carpenter makes his liberal anti-heroes so bad ass & take charge that I cheer them despite my inner right wing tendencies. The alley fight makes no sense but it always bring a smile to my face to see “The Rowdy One” using a back suplex & then a gutwrench suplex as a finisher.

    It could also be the old school pro wrestling fan in me that loves this movie so much. Is there any other pro wrestler besides The Rock that could’ve topped Rowdy Roddy Piper’s performance in They Live? Anyone who has seen one of Piper’s WWF interviews knows he has a ton of charisma, intensity, comic timing, & the “it” factor. Piper is easily the 2nd best actor to come from the Pro Wrestling circuit.

    The bubble gum line is classic but don’t forget the “Mamma don’t like tattletales” one-liner.