Cut & Print: They Live (1988)
The recent passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is sad news indeed. The guys personality – his generosity of spirit, his willingness to entertain, and his all-around easy going attitude – were what made him so endearing. This guy played a villain in the ring, and yet – even with all the showmanship that goes along with professional wrestling – it was apparent that there was so much more to this guy. Whatever it was, famed director John Carpenter saw it, and cast him in the lead in cult classic They Live (1988). The Piper. Carpenter team succeeded in creating something memorable. Some people call this film the “ultimate B-movie,” but thanks to a pitch perfect performance from Piper and some really deft yet often understated writing, this film can’t be dismissed as just “merely cheesy” as most B-Movies can. Along side the uproarious fights, the “kind of off” special effects, and the really quotable lines, there’s just too much substance here.
The story concerns a drifter named Nada (this is the best use of an obvious name in the history of film) who’s just looking for an honest wage. He is taken in by some friendly people a shanty down that somehow (unfortunately) exists in the shadows of a city’s massive skyscrapers. He talks his way to an honest construction job and find that he has a new buddy in that line of work. Even with these simple details, Carpenter is really painting the picture of the world of his film a few brushstrokes at a time, and- particularly early on in the film – he’s not going to give us too much at once. Yet we see – more subtly than we’d expect, the result of Reaganomics play out right in this setting and as we see the difficult life Nada’s new friends have. He isn’t content here, and there seems to be something that doesn’t feel right. There’s some kind of activity across the way at a church: deliveries of some sort, and strange meetings. Some kind of plans are being made. The people in the shantytown might turn on the television, but the transmissions are always interrupted by a strange man on television as he reads from cards as to what “they” are doing and how “they” are controlling us and in order to make “them” more powerful (This plays into the kind of subtle paranoia that everyone has, doesn’t it? When something’s not right in the world, it’s always “they” that are the cause of it, right?) and eventually riot police take down whatever operations are happening at the church. Somehow, Carpenter was able to downplay all of these important developments in favor of focusing on the growing friendship between Nada and that other construction worker, Frank Armitage (played to perfection by Keith David). .
Indeed, the first act of this film is one of the most unique first acts in the history of science fiction films. Carpenter wants to give us tiny hints of what’s important to this story – but here and there – he’s more interested in creating a truly unsettling feeling, and that’s more important than the specific events or even the specific story points that he has to set up for the film to work. Watch any science fiction and comic book film that’s been out except They Live and you will see a conscious effort to put forth important plot details and explanations for everything, yet so few of the filmmakers have been able to just step back and establish a mood. Carpenter does it here: this unsettling mood propels a first act that is otherwise rather sparse in dialogue, action, or big, important events. We see that Nada is a decent guy, we see that Frank is as well, and that they know that the reason that their own lives are so tough is because of the old Reaganomics axiom “whoever has the gold makes the rules” is so true, but Carpenter isn’t inundating us with all that many specific plot developments. In fact, he’s not even telling us for certain if there’s anything really behind all of this; this might be just how life is for people like Nada and the inhabitants of the shantytown.
Yet, we know something is amiss. It’s because of Carpenter’s brilliance that we know this just from how these early scenes “feel.” It’s also the reason his choice of casting Piper is just so absolutely perfect. He plays a good-natured “everyman” who might not be terribly smart or have a lot of potential, but he’s a keen observer, and a decent guy.
After Nada sees the church-members taken out by the riot police in the middle of the night, he returns to the church to investigate and finds that the church is a front for something bigger. If anyone passes by the church and hears the choir they won’t know that the choir was previously recorded. He’s caught by the blind preacher, who examines his face slowly with his hands, and doesn’t retort against him. When Nada leaves, he takes a box he found hidden in the wall. Inside the box is a shipment of sunglasses. Maybe they are just packing material and there is something important at the bottom of the box. And it’s when he discovers that there isn’t anything else that They Live starts to really come into it’s own as a film that is something special. He tosses the box in alley dumpster and takes a pair with him. When he puts on the sunglasses the world itself becomes black and white, both literally and figuratively. Now Carpenter s becoming quite a virtuoso as he keeps on painting that picture he wants to paint. Where They Live goes from here should only be the purview of the cheesiest of B-movies, but because everything that happens next plays into the themes of a fractured economy that Carpenter started giving us right from the opening frames of the film, we can only praise him for earning this second act revelation: many of the elite and powerful in this country are in fact aliens, and the rest of the population is under their control thanks to subliminal messages that cannot be discerned. Yet, when Nada puts on the glasses, he can see the world for how it really is.
Simple. Brilliant. And Piper sells the hell out of it. His initial stroll through the city wearing these glasses is perfectly played. He’s a wrestler, after all, and there is an aspect to this material that is cheesy, and his performance is as not always understated. Piper understands this material, and he understands the tone that Carpenter was trying for here – a truly unique blend of of uneasiness and paranoia mixed with, of all things, camp. Nada steals a shotgun and – while wearing the sunglasses – starts picking off random aliens one by one. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum!” Take note, Mr. Nukem: that line originated with this film, and couldn’t be better delivered than by Piper himself.
Perhaps no scene is more memorable than the scene where – upon trying to recover all the other sunglasses in that alley dumpster – Nada is confronted by Frank. To Frank, Nada has just gone and killed innocent people, but friends have empathy for each other, so he throws him a wad of cash so he might have a chance of making it. Beyond that Frank wants nothing more to do with him. When Nada emphatically pleads with him to put on the glasses, they have to fight. And fight. And fight. It’s a grueling slugfest that lasts maybe about seven minutes. When it seems that they are through and there’s no fight left in them, they just keep right on going. “Either you put on these glasses, or you start eating that trashcan.” Classic. Just classic. It might be cheesy, but it’s amazing how much we actually care about what is happening here.
Eventually, Frank does see things how they really are. He starts prodding Nada for something more, like what they are going to do about it. Nada, still busted up from the fight, looks right at him with bug-eyes and says “When you come up with a master plan, you let me know.” In any other movie, the delivery would be overstated, yet, Piper knows exactly how to play this character and this moment. He knows that Carpenter’s film hasn’t always played by the the “rules” of storytelling, so why should he have to do the same as a actor? He’s playing to the material. In the film’s early scenes we take his character seriously, but when the story starts to really play out, Piper’s performance changes a bit and becomes attenuated to fit the material.
The film’s second and third acts work quite well, The pair find the rebel cell in the bowels of the city who had constructed the glasses and wanted to deliver them to the public, but once the riot police kill just about everything in order to keep the populace from “seeing” it’s up to Nada and Frank save the day by themselves. They infiltrate the alien facility, learn what is happening and how the aliens are using humanity and keeping all except for the powerful completely in the dark, and then they must destroy the source of that signal that they are using to do exactly that. To summarize They Live ‘s third act might be to make it sound just like every sci movie where aliens take over and the heroes must break in and stop it, but as Nada and Frank stroll around the place finding secret after secret, the viewer is more compelled by the allegory than the action even as the film is winding down to its inevitable conclusion.
In real life, do “they” have a concrete motive, and are ‘“they” truly united and doing whatever they can to keep the public from seeing what they are up to? Carpenter’s ideas are powerful indeed, because even after he shows us what’s behind the curtain of society and the plot starts to run largely on autopilot, we still care a lot about Nada, and – even more – we want to see those aliens get what’s coming to them. We want to be there for that moment when Nada sacrifices everything, so we can see the reactions of the everyday-folk when they suddenly wake up. Carpenter delivers exactly that, in literally the last minute of the film. Am I spoiling anything by saying that? Not really: this is a B-movie, and where these kinds of film go should be no surprise. The good B-movies make the trips down familiar paths worth it.
They Live is such a unique move in that it exists as a both cheesy second rate film, a character driven piece, a mood piece, and a intelligent, provocative allegory. As deft as Carpenter’s approach was, it was Piper’s acting that draws us into the story. He makes it all work much better than it probably should have. Roddy – who’s gone now – had only headlined this one movie having appeared in a few small roles – but he charted the course that The Rock and Dave Bautista would later walk on. He took a great idea for a movie and elevated the material with a very good performance.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars. “Mama don’t like tattletales!”