THEY LIVE is one of my favorite movies ever. It is probaly the very best version of a rare type of movie I love: the badass action movie that also works as a political statement. BILLY JACK may be more political, but it seems so self important and it has no sense of humor. THEY LIVE is kind of saying the same thing THE MATRIX is saying about a society brainwashed by media and advertising, but it’s saying more than that. It’s about the America of the Reagan years, when everything was geared to help the rich at the expense of the working class. Which for some reason seems awfully familiar today. Huh. Weird.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays Nada, a drifter who walks into town with tools and a sleeping bag on his back. (Hey, what happens to that sleeping bag? I think it disappears.) This is a hero who not only doesn’t drive a sports car, but doesn’t have a car at all. Or a house. Or a job, at first. The plants are closing, the jobs are drying up, that’s why he’s on the move. But he happens to get a construction job, where he meets Frank (Keith motherfuckin David from THE THING) and finds out about a homeless encampment near a church where some nice people serve food for the homeless.
The first section of the movie doesn’t have alot of dialogue. It’s all about watching. Nada watches people watching TV – an old lady in an apartment, a dude standing outside an electronics shop, even homeless people who have a TV set up outside. We can see that Nada is a little creeped out by the vapid commercials and their hypnotic effect on people. And then they get pissed off when, every once in a while, some weird old man cuts into the broadcast desperately telling people to “wake up.” And then everybody gets a headache.
Nada also starts watching the church, because he notices something odd going on. He watches a helicopter watching the church. He sneaks in and sees that it’s not a real church. The choir he hears from outside is a reel-to-reel tape and there’s some kind of rebels hatching a plan in there. He even bumps into a secret panel in the wall and sees a box inside, but he gets found out by an elderly blind priest, so he leaves.
All this watching is actually very cinematic. I like the good ol’ non-verbal storytelling. And of course the director is John Carpenter and he knows how to pull this shit off. It’s got a bluesy take on the usual John Carpenter driving electronic score, so it creates a real powerful mood. The movie’s actually a little stiff when they have dialogue explaining things, but the story is so perfect that I don’t care.
One night an army of riot cops come raid the church. Not just that, they bulldoze the entire homeless camp and beat everybody up, including the elderly, blind priest. This might seem over-the-top to some people, but not to me. If you’ve been around WTO or any big police riot like that you know this movie is accurate. Except there is less chanting in the movie version. It might make you lose respect for Keith David’s character if he kept chanting, “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
The next day, Nada goes into the church, opens up the secret panel, steals the box, brings it to an alley… and finds out it’s just a box of sunglasses. Shit.
But you guys know what happens next. It turns out that the sunglasses were created by the rebels, they somehow break through a hypnotic signal that has brainwashed the world. So as Nada walks around he sees the truth: billboards and magazines that say things like “OBEY” and “CONSUME” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE” in plain black letters on plain white backgrounds. Money that says “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” And some people, many of them coincidentally with ties or fur coats, have ugly skeletal alien faces. Because the ruling class are aliens, keeping us “asleep” with our competition and greed so we won’t notice they’re infiltrating our world and slowly changing our climate to theirs. (I wonder if Al Gore likes THEY LIVE? Maybe if he said that in 2000 he would’ve won by enough to stay president.)
The section of the movie where Nada walks around with his sunglasses and sees what’s going on is undeniably classic. Especially when he tells off some rich alien ladies in a high end grocery store, and all the aliens start talking into their Rolexes. “I’ve got one that can see.” Nada ends up killing two alien cops, stealing their shotgun and shooting up a bank, which is where he says his most famous line, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” Apparently John Carpenter gave Piper free reign to ad lib dialogue, and he made that one up. There’s lots of funny lines like that. My favorite line actually I always remembered completely wrong. I thought he said, “It fuckin figures” when he saw all the rich people were aliens. But he actually says the equally perfect, “It figures it would be something like this.”
It’s perfect because it’s true, it does figure. The details of the alien takeover all fit the world as we know it. Alot of rich people are our alien controllers. We see two guys talking, the alien got a big promotion and the human didn’t. Who’s an alien and who’s not always seems to fall along class lines. The assistants aren’t aliens, the waiters aren’t, the people of color aren’t. Some cops are aliens but most of them aren’t, they just work for the man anyway. Alot of humans benefit from the takeover too – as they sellout, they find themselves getting raises and promotions. There are even humans who know about the aliens and still sellout, and in addition to getting money and power they’re honored at a fancy banquet in the aliens’ underground tunnel system.
And you know one give away that they’re not on our side? They got these fancy watches that work as walkie talkies and as teleporters. You always thought why can’t I have one of those fancy rich people watches? Because I can’t afford it. But actually it’s because you’re not a they live. In the ’80s those watches were a big thing for yuppies and shit, now in the 2000s it’s mostly rappers that are they lives, such as P-Diddy is definitely a they live and he hands out watches to people at awards shows to secretly honor their collaboration with the they lives.
Once Nada finds out the secret, the movie is less about watching and more about shooting. There’s alot of shooting in this movie. But the greatest and most distinctive action scene in the movie is the famous alley fight between Nada and Frank. Nada wants Frank to put on the sunglasses to see the truth, but Frank doesn’t want to. He has a wife and kid, he just wants to mind his own business, stay out of it. So the result is an amazing 5 1/2 minute wrestling match on concrete. There is some bodyslamming, alot of punching, a whole lot of kicking and kneeing in the balls. I mean they just beat the shit out of each other, and these are our heroes. This scene is both legendary and infamous because it goes on for so long, and most people (including people who like it) seem to think it is completely gratuitous. I disagree. I think it’s a perfect symbol for the distance somebody will go to not see the trouble in the world. I don’t like politics. I just mind my own business. All Frank has to do is look, but he must know instinctively that it is a seditious act, it will change his life. Once Nada gets those glasses on him, Frank can’t look away. He’s on the team, and the two of them set out to see what they can do to take the planet back.
Actually first they limp to a hotel room, all bloody, and check in together. I wonder what the hell the hotel clerk thinks is going on?
I mean, THEY LIVE has everything. The brilliant Twilight Zone type premise. The dead-on social/political satire. The catchy soundtrack. The hilarious tough guy oneliners. The wrestling. The shooting. The cool alien monsters in ties, making speeches. The violent rebellion against the oppressors. The badass kamikaze conclusion. Keith David. Roddy Piper. Everything. That right there was a list of everything.
Piper is clearly not as good of an actor as Kurt Russell, but he’s perfect as this particular John Carpenter hero. He seems believable as a homeless construction worker. And even though I think he has a bit of a Canadian accent, you believe him when he says he believes in America. When he puts the glasses on and finds out what’s happening to America, he knows he has to fix it. This is a movie about real partriotism.
Unfortunately for patriotism though, the Americans really fucked up on releasing THEY LIVE on DVD. There’s a German version with a commentary track by Carpenter and Piper (in English, of course). The region 1 version went out of print for a while so I assumed they’d put the commentary on when it came out again. But when the “special edition” finally came out there was nothing extra. (It figures it would be something like that.) If you can get a hold of it, and if you enjoy Carpenter’s commentaries as much as I do, this is as good as the other ones.
The most interesting thing to me is when Piper explains the effect this movie had on his wrestling career. He was at the WWF of course, where he was the Joker to Hulk Hogan’s Batman. But he wanted to do this movie. Vince McMahon didn’t want him to do it because he always wanted to control all aspects of his wrestlers’ careers, and this was an offer coming from the outside. Apparently they told Piper just to forget about it, don’t do the movie, and the WWF will find a bigger movie for him to do instead. But Piper said yeah, you can get me a bigger movie, but it won’t be directed by John Carpenter. He quit the WWF to work with John Carpenter. So I like the guy! Just for that, I might try watching HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN again. I haven’t seen that since the days of USA Up All Night.
My only complaint about THEY LIVE: the title is not so hot. I know, it comes from the graffiti that says “They live, we sleep.” They’re living their real lives which is to fuck with us and put us in a dreamworld. Just like those god damn machines in THE MATRIX. So it makes sense, but it just sounds kind of awkward. I mean you can’t really make a THEY LIVE 2 or a THEY LIVE AGAIN, it just sounds bad.
Oh well. Still one of the best movies ever. And every time I watch it it’s better than I remember it being. And I like to think it’s just because it’s a great movie, not because it’s getting more and more relevant by the day.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.