Unemployed builder Nada (professional wrestling legend Roddy Piper) goes to LA looking for work and ends up staying in a shanty town where he begins to suspect that something Just Isn’t Right. There’s a weird preacher, television hackers and Strange Goings On at the local church before things take a sinister turn when The Man raids the shanty town, leaving it in ruins. Nada makes off with a box of contraband, finding that it’s full of gnarly looking sunglasses. Then he puts a pair on and the film goes mental with ensuing skull-faced aliens, epic fisticuffs, a heavy dose of satire and Meg Foster out of Cagney and Lacey.
Although They Live features one of John Carpenter’s least effective self-composed (with Alan Howarth) scores, his direction remains masterful. The film is first and foremost a science fiction thriller but serves just as effectively as action movie and satire. Carpenter’s patented nods to other filmmakers are in full effect here too, with a ’50s B-movie vibe to the sci-fi elements and a fight scene which pays tribute to the epic punch-up between John Wayne and Victor McLaglin (also an ex-wrestler) in John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Interestingly, the VHS’ 4:3 cropping seems to have done no harm. The framing looks fine for most of the movie including the action scenes, so it seems likely Carpenter was working with the two aspect ratios in mind. Of course, it does looks great in widescreen too.
That fight, between Piper and Keith David, is a classic – one of the great onscreen brawls and not a stunt double in sight. A straight five minutes of wince-inducing punishment via old school brawling and some pro wrestling moves (stunt coordinator Jeff Imada would go on to handle the celebrated fight choreography for the second two Bourne movies), it’s made all the more enjoyable by the ridiculousness of the situation; the fight is all over a pair of sunglasses.
The sunglasses are the McGuffin which leads us squarely into satire-heavy sci-fi territory, setting the pace for the rest of the film. If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this paragraph as it’s entirely spoilery. The glasses in question have been developed by a rebel underground to expose a surreptitious alien invasion of Earth. Put the shades on and you can see not only the real, skull-like faces of the aliens among us, but the true nature of the society they have built and influenced. Consumer advertising reads: “OBEY”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “CONFORM” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”. Paper money bears only the legend “THIS IS YOUR GOD”. The truth is exposed in monochrome (as in “it’s all right there in black and white”). It’s all kind of brilliant.
I was prompted to revisit this one after Roddy Piper’s death last month at the way-too-young age of 61. Here, at the height of his wrestling career, he turns in a solid, likeable performance which should have seen him go on to actual movie stardom, although he did amass quite a catalogue of B-movie credits over the years. He even improvised the film’s most quotable line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
They Live was a modest, low budget box office success on its release. Given its premise it seems inevitable that it would go on to develop a strong cult reputation – and not just in the world of film fans. A cursory YouTube search will show that conspiracy theorists and such-like – David Icke amongst them – have long adopted it as proof of a reptile illuminati alien shadow government, or whatever. In any case, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.