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Cinophile: THEY LIVE

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I love John Carpenter’s movies. Yes, I can admit that his stuff is not for everyone: despite making very straightforward films that can even stray into B-movie territory, Carpenter’s movies can often sit just beyond the edge of popular consumption.

Sometimes that works very well, as seen with the staggering successes of Halloween, The Thing and Escape from New York. But in many cases he alienates the mainstream, as we saw with Ghosts of Mars, Big Trouble in Little China and Vampires. But his knack for making films that stand apart yet not go all weird has made many fans, including me. This column has not covered any other director more.

That brings us to They Live, a movie that is one of Carpenter’s most influential, but not my favourite. Yet the unfortunate death this past weekend of Roddy Piper makes it impossible to ignore this piece of subversive cinema. Carpenter has long dealt with themes of oppression and paranoia – and in that light They Live is his magnum opus.

Roddy Piper plays George Nada, a transient worker who shows up in Los Angeles. Work is scarce, but he finds a job at a construction site and a place to sleep at a local squatter camp. Strange goings-ons at a nearby church catch his attention and he soon ends up with a box of sunglasses. But these are no ordinary shades: when he puts them on, they reveal the world to be an illusion and masking a reality where aliens have taken over the planet.

Lesser people would have taken this differently, perhaps slowly plan a resistance and take the machine apart through guile. Not Nada: his reaction, after freaking out, is to arm himself and start shooting the aliens. But to the ordinary person he appears to be gunning down innocent people. In a classic reality-trap plot, Nada has to convince those around him that he is not a homicidal maniac and everyone is a slave to bug-eyed alien monsters.

They Live is a bit lopsided, but it was still a big hit, not the least thanks to Piper. A man with a larger-than-life personality, Piper was a major force in professional wrestling – easily on the same level as Hulk Hogan and Rick Flair. That same towering presence slips into They Live like a glove. Nada is a man with little left to lose and overly confident about his actions. Piper was perfect for this, giving real strength and presence to what is actually a pretty bumbling and clueless character.

The result is a movie experience that contributed richly to our modern world. Piper’s own one-liners are today immortal, so is the infamous street fight between Nada and his friend Frank Armitage. The use of ‘OBEY’ in pop culture and protest art can also thank They Live.

Today the movie has a revitalised relevance. In a world where we are continually overwhelmed by messages and yet coax ourselves into little cliques on the Internet, there is something poignant about They Live. It’s a challenge to question reality and not so readily take society’s comforts for granted. It’s a call to kick ass and chew bubblegum… and you’re all outta gum.

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The immortal line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” was ad-libbed by Roddy Piper. Director John Carpenter told him to walk into the scene, say something and start shooting at aliens. Piper had previously invented the line as a wrestling taunt, but never used it. The quote would later reach new immortality in the game Duke Nukem 3D, but it has been copied and parodied widely in movies, music and TV.
They Live was based on a short story by Ray Nelson called ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’. In it a man awaken from a hypnosis session able to see lizard-like aliens among everyone, as well as subversive messages used to control the world.
The street fight between Nada and Richard was supposed to be short, but the two actors went all-out to make it real. They only faked the face and groin punches. After weeks of rehearsing and finally shooting the scene, the fight lasted more than five minutes. Yet it so impressed John Carpenter that he kept the entire sequence in the film.
Shot for $8 million, it was a financial success. But They Live did not stay in the charts for very long. Nonetheless, it kickstarted the acting career of professional wrestling legend Roddy Piper, who at that point had only done bit roles.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: August 3, 2015

One Comment

  1. I haven’t watched this since the early 90’s, great film but without Roddy Piper it wouldn’t have become the cult classic it is for me. His personality gave it it’s character and that ad-lib line… on my re-watch list now.


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