Welcome back, and thank you for the support of my first piece, Sundays With… John Carpenter’s The Thing. As the month of May continues I will delve deeper into the catalog of the legendary John Carpenter. Let’s not waste any more time and dig in to this week’s installment.
SUNDAYS WITH… THEY LIVE
Release Date: November 4, 1988
Run Time: 94 minutes
Starring: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
Director: John Carpenter
Robs Score: 8.5/10
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.”-Nada
They Live is a political satire, science fiction tale starring former WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a drifter in Reagan era Los Angeles. The drifter (named Nada in the credits) finds work at a construction site, and from there meets Frank (Keith David) who brings him to the pseudo homeless shelter/ shanty town in which Frank lives. While there Nada observes odd going-ons inside a church across the street, and witnesses an interruption in a television broadcast that claims that the middle and lower class are being controlled. The next night, the church and shanty town are over taken by police and military forces, and the next day there isn’t a trace of the town left. It is while searching through the debris of the church that Nada finds a pair of sunglasses. Once he puts the sunglasses on he starts to see not only the subliminal messages hidden in everyday life, but also that some of the people are not what they seem to be. They Live was based on the 1963 short story “The Eight O Clock People” by Ray Nelson. (The actual title was pointed out as “Eight O’ Clock In The Morning.”)
They Live shows the thinly veiled unhappiness of commercialization and Reganomics disguised as a science fiction film. As a rule I rarely discuss politics because it usually causes more issues than necessary but this film makes the topic of political unrest fun. At the heart this is a film about class distinction. The middle and lower class are mostly nameless in the film and the conditions in which they live and work are shown as nothing short of dire. The eighties is a decade that is usually debated as either being a good time of excess or as a time of struggle and this film captures that perfectly. They Live takes the middle and lower class questions of “how are we allowing this to happen?” and giving it an extraterrestrial face. The very idea of disguising most of the affluent and upper class as aliens is a brilliant segue to try and explain the uneasiness of the time.
They Live introduced the acting world to Roddy Piper. Long time wrestling fans knew him as the antihero with the great promos, a skill that was not wasted in this film. Most of Pipers one liners are classic that we still see and hear today. However, through most of the film Piper is basically silent, which in my opinion was a genius idea for two reasons. The first being that we have seen the marketability of big name wrestlers in film, however that does not mean that they translate well as actors (I’m looking at you Hulkster!) The second reason is that it helps to emphasize the voicelessness that the film was implying of the lower class. They Live also sees the return of Keith David who again delivers a solid performance, especially in the brawl scene. John Carpenter works out an understated yet eighties heavy score that fits the film like a glove. The alien makeup and subliminal messages are a throwback to the flying saucer films of the fifties. This is a success but on a much smaller scale when compared to other Carpenter films.
As with most Carpenter films, They Live opened up to mediocre sales, but has since become a cult classic. I am sure that in other mediums you have heard a quote from this film, and I can almost guarantee that you have seen Shepard Fairey’s Obey stickers or street art that is directly influenced from the film. They Live in my opinion is one of the most underrated films of the eighties, and I am not alone in that thinking, as it has earned a spot in Entertainment Weekly: “The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since ’83”.
The imagery, quotability, and message of They Live are still alive and well today, and that is what makes it a cult classic.