They Live (1988) written and directed by John Carpenter
What’s it about?
A drifter (Roddy Piper) arrives in LA to find work. He hears a mysterious preacher (Raymond St Jacques) sermonising about “our owners” but ignores it and moves on. He gets a job on a construction site and befriends another homeless man (Keith David) who invites him to a squatter camp run by the kindly Gilbert (Peter Jason). There, he can’t help but become increasingly suspicious about Gilbert’s behaviour, especially when he sees him walking into an adjacent church with the preacher from earlier. He breaks in to investigate and is caught by the preacher who mentions a revolution coming and asks him to try on a pair of sunglasses. Understandably taken aback, he refuses and makes a break for it.
The following night, the police raid the camp and church, bulldozing the huts and beating up anyone who resists. The next morning, the drifter finds a box filled with these sunglasses. When he puts them on, he finds a shocking new reality where some people amongst us are hideous-faced aliens who control us via subliminal messages hidden in billboards, magazines, televisions and more.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
After the box office flop of his big-budget wuxia homage Big Trouble In Little China (1986), John Carpenter decided to return to his low-budget independent roots with two ventures funded by Alive Films: Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988). The company allowed him full creative control on condition that he works within a tight budget of $3 million per film.
They Live was loosely based by a short story by called Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson which was originally published in the US periodical The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963 and then subsequently adapted into comic book form in 1986. While adapting it for the screen he repurposed it into a scathing attack on the unfettered capitalism and near-constant barrage of advertising that characterised America in the 1980s (and, come to think of it, has never really stopped characterising it since then).
In common with many of the director’s other 1980s films, it wasn’t a huge success during its initial release. However, it has amassed a cult following over the years and particularly so in the social media age, where its potent themes and imagery have lent themselves well to various widely-shared Facebook memes. The main protagonist’s line “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum!” has also entered the public consciousness. It was used in the popular video game Duke Nukem 3D (which was first released on PC in 1996) and has also inspired the name of a website and YouTube channel called All Outta Bubble Gum which is based around tallying up how many onscreen kills various actors notch up in their respective films.
It also gave Canadian professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper his best-known acting role. Most of his other films failed to receive major theatrical releases.
How does it hold up?
If I was to pick a personal favourite John Carpenter film, I would probably settle on this one (albeit in a close run with Big Trouble In Little China). Although not perfect it is a lot of fun, along with being bold and subversive in a way that Hollywood films so rarely are. The anti-capitalist message is as relevant nowadays as it ever was in these days when the poorer sections of society endlessly suffer the brunt of economic misfortunes while the wealthy continue to relentlessly to fill their pockets.
This can be seen right from the opening shots that contrast the silvery sheen of skyscrapers with run-down train yards and the poor trying to cover their heads from the rain with cardboard boxes. The message continues with the speeches made by the various characters related to the elitist and greed-oriented mentality of modern American society. At one point one character says to our hero:
“Remember the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.”
The build-up leading to Piper’s character’s eventful donning of the glasses is slow and deliberate. Once he does this, however, we get one of the most outright astonishing and satirically brilliant sequences ever filmed: he walks down a main city street, seeing the world in black and white and advertising disappearing to reveal statements like “Submit”, “Obey”, “Marry and reproduce” and “Stay asleep”. He also sees the skeletal faces of the alien race that walks among us, and starts to let loose some hilarious dialogue: “That’s like pouring perfume on a pig” he says to one woman adjusting her hair in a reflection. He starts to make it his mission to take down the aliens, making the immortal statement of intent:
“I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum!”
The second half isn’t quite as effective, in part due to a horribly stilted performance by Meg Foster as Holly, a woman who works for a TV channel that appears to be broadcasting the subliminal signals being used to put humanity into a trance. The climactic action sequences are rather ordinary 1980s fare, featuring numerous SWAT team members being gunned down by just two guys. There are still good moments in between these low points though, the best being a lengthy fistfight between Piper and David: “put the glasses on!” The final montage of vignettes is also satisfyingly hilarious.
Roddy Piper is a better actor than any pro wrestler has the right to be; he’s tough and can deliver his one-liners with deadpan flair, but at the same time conveys a real underdog vulnerability. It’s a pity he never became a bigger star since he’s much more engaging than other muscular action heroes who went onto better careers - Jean Claude Van Damme being a good example. In the supporting cast, Raymond St. Jacques picks up the honours as the fiery blind preacher who has repurposed his sermons to point the finger at the capitalist aliens.
Runtime: 94 mins
Dir: John Carpenter
Script: John Carpenter, based on a short story by Ray Nelson
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques