I watch movies for different reasons. Sometimes I just want to watch something that’s comfortable. You know, that movie that you can pop in and watch anytime and it never gets old? Sometimes I like to feel as though I’ve been enlightened, or that I’ve learned something. Sometimes I want to be creeped out, inspired, or moved to laughter. Occasionally I even watch movies to see things that I know will be upsetting, because to ignore them would be to ignore that those things exist. And ignoring a bad thing doesn’t make it go away. Ignoring a bad thing only gives it room to grow. Most of the time, though, I just watch movies to be entertained.
It’s for this last reason that I recently decided to revisit John Carpenter’s 1988 science fiction/horror film, They Live.
It would be easy to dismiss They Live as a joke. Unabashedly campy special effects, a ridiculously simplistic narrative filled with plot holes larger than the film’s budget, and a wrestler-turned-lead actor (Rowdy Roddy Piper) turning phrases like “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum.” would probably turn off most viewers seeing it for the first time today. Funny thing is, all of those things that should be negative strikes against the film are exactly the things that make it so enjoyable. Toss in an over-the-top, in your face social criticism about the rampant consumerism of the 1980’s (applicable, perhaps more so, today), and you’ve got most of the ingredients for a cult classic on your hands.
Piper plays Nada, a drifter looking for honest work and a chance at a better life. Shortly after jumping a train to Los Angeles, Nada finds a job at a construction site and hooks up with Frank (played by Keith David), a fellow down-on-his-luck employee, who invites him to a shantytown that provides shelter and food to society’s castaways. But Nada’s a suspicious fellow, and it doesn’t take long for him to catch a whiff of some funny business happening at the church across the street. And before you know it, the shit has hit the fan, and Nada finds himself in the middle of a horrifying conspiracy of alien world domination.
There are some great action set pieces in here, including a marathon fight scene between the film’s two protagonists that has made just about every “Greatest Film Fights” list ever created, at least one plot twist you probably won’t see coming, and enough 80’s-style gun violence to satisfy even the most blood thirsty filmgoer.
They Live, despite its humble appearance, has left its mark on pop-culture, influencing the creators of popular video game series Duke Nukem, and inspiring street artist Shepard Fairey to create the viral propaganda parody “Obey”, seen plastered on city walls all over the nation beneath the image of Andre the Giant.
Still, you probably won’t hear Carpenter’s They Live mentioned in the same breath with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Piper and David aren’t going to be mistaken for Newman and Redford’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. But neither of these facts should deter you from dusting off this old gem and popping it into the