Every year it seems like the world is turning more and more into the world of the John Carpenter cult classic They Live. A film about a secret alien invasion in the guise of alien beings mining Earth for resources and treated our planet as their version of a third world country. The allies of the powers get richer, the poor get poorer, the police are tools of the system. The main differences of course being their aliens and as far as we know we’re dealing with regular people in positions of power. The other difference is they get exposed, where as our bad guys get to go on and continue being dipshits.
John Carpenter is one of those cult directors who does not seem to get the mainstream credit he deserves. Practically invented the modern slasher genre with Halloween and produced scores of classic films. Some met mainstream success like the aforementioned Halloween but also Escape From New York. Others became true cult classics, surviving on cable or video stores like his remake of the Thing or Big Trouble In Little China. Carpenter’s movies can be tense and eerie or amusing and fun. Carpenters best movies have a way about them that pulls the viewer in, gives them something either unlike whats come before, or a strong execution of formula ideas. I believe They Live to be Carpenters best work. It does not have his strongest acting or special effects but its central story and building suspense up to its big finale hits all the right notes for me.
Carpenter’s film is loosely based on a short story entitled Eight O’ Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson. The story would later be adapted as a comic strip entitled Nada. Carpenters take was influenced by his feelings toward politics (it was the Reagan era) and pop culture at the time. Following a working man, John Nada, who rolls into town looking for work. He hooks up with another working poor, Frank Armitage, who shows him to a slum community. Nada’s curiosity about the going on inside a nearby church lead him to discover that the mass population have been hypnotized. The people can not see the aliens who have taken positions of power nor can they see all the subliminal messages that surround them. They Live is the source for the classic black and white OBEY slogan.
Carpenter’s main cast is relatively small. The lead was an unexpected choice in pro-wrestling legend Roddy Piper. Piper was not a screen actor but he knows a thing or two about acting. Roddy Piper’s claim to fame in the wrestling world was his voice. The way he could grip the wrestling fans in his promos and interviews which translated to his in ring work. For Piper’s first gig he nails it. His performance matches the scenes. From the sequence at the temp agency, his first meeting with Frank, up to his discovery of the notorious sunglasses that let him see what really is going on. Nada progresses quickly from a man just looking for a job to a man whose looking to stop our invaders. It was this movie, Piper himself, the coined the famous line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
The other two main roles were filled by Keith David who worked with John Carpenter on The Thing and Meg Foster, the original TV Christine Cagney. David is sort of the sidekick in the movie. He helps out Nada but doesn’t follow him blindly. Keith David is always reliable and his chemistry here with Piper is great. Specifically their hard hitting street fight-a classic scene that’s been recreated in South Park. Meg Foster, I don’t want to say much about her character but Foster has a hypnotic quality to her. It’s those eyes-ice blue. Foster definitely will reel you in with her short part. I also have to mention the late Raymond St. Jacques who plays the blind street preacher. Brilliant stuff.
The make up effects might be the weakest part of the movie. While the aliens look cool, there is movement problems with their mouths. The film was very low budget and I imagine they did the best with what they could.
I mentioned the street fight between Piper and David as a classic scene and its one of my favorites. There are a few other scenes that give me goosebumps. The Police Raid on the slum/shanty town sequence. Also the the last action scenes following Nada and Armitage inside a television station plays out like a modern co-op First Person Shooter.
They Live is a low budget sci-fi action thriller with big themes it only touches upon but those light touches have echoed loud and clear. The films popularity has grown through the years and now you see more and more people sporting clothes referencing the film, doing art homages, and more. Check the movie out. Here’s the cheesy yet epic 80s trailer.