John Carpenter’s They Live
There are few cult films – particularly from the 1980s – which you can become instantly enamoured with. They Live from director John Carpenter is one such ditty which really is for the camp, cult film crowd. With its 1950s B-movie feel (aliens, dystopian futures), its classic one-liners and key repetitive Carpenter-composed score, it contains all the elements to make it more than just ‘Friday night film fodder’. Certainly a lasting achievement considering it stars an ex-wrestler in the steroid-enhanced shape of ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper.
For those not in the know about this warming slice of Carpenter-kitsch, the story concerns Piper’s character John Nada. A labourer who is out of work and homeless, he stumbles upon a box of very different sunglasses. Suddenly he sees the world for what it really is, an alien-run institution where authority is never questioned, independent thought is suppressed, and we care only about consumption of goods.
Personally, I think this is a vastly underrated genre effort from Carpenter, a satirical stab at society, which produces its fair share of chuckles and thought provoking questions. Scratch the surface slightly and you’ll find a subversive slice of 50s paranoia infused with the 80s mentality of greed and unemployment. It ‘s a witty, well written script by Carpenter – under the pseudonym Frank Armitage – and feels just as relevant now as it was in the 1980s.
The film becomes a fantastic B-movie homage once the ‘truth seeing’ glasses are put on by the characters, and everything is literally black and white. Humans are still humans but the aliens’ true visages are shown, all melted faces and bug-eyes. If it wasn’t for the charismatic performance from Piper this movie could have possibly been a bit humdrum. It’s as assured performance as you’re likely to see in any cult film. From the first instance Piper’s character puts the sunglasses on, his vision is filled with darkly funny elements which channel 1950s sci-fi kitsch. His eyes are literally opened to the nature of subliminal advertising and mind control as he sees the aliens for who they really are and how they’re infecting our minds.
They Live quickly becomes one of those cult films which bypasses serious critiquing, landing as it does firmly in the guilty pleasures viewing basket with its tongue-in-cheek style and over the top action. The film’s highlights are too many to mention in this retrospective, but two particular moments do stand out as I type away. The first has to be the moment the film’s most quotable line is uttered: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum”, an instantly classic line mixed with a healthy dose of Carpenter’s synthesised Western-like score, painting Piper as a modern day outlaw.
Speaking of the music, Carpenter manages to provide an interesting soundtrack. Its slow pulsing synthesised score invokes a sense of the signature entrance of a Western outlaw. It adds a sense of lone heroism to the proceedings, while also containing enough quirky stylings in the rest of the score to not take itself too seriously.
The second standout moment – which is to my knowledge a firm favourite among cult film fans – would have to be the unbelievably long and arduous fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David to make him wear the sunglasses. A whole seven minutes pass during this scuffle as it seesaws between a choreographed fight – with a Western vibe – through to total ludicrousness verging almost on farce. Words can truly not do this sequence justice as it’s one of those moments which has to be seen to be believed. It’s this that cements the film as an all time classic in the guilty pleasures hall of fame. This is a cult film which wears its status with pride on its sleeve. It becomes hard not to enjoy its absolute disregard to seriousness.
High praise indeed and enough – at least I hope – to urge someone to sit and watch, then marvel at its satirical, but light hearted, pot-shots at consumerism. It might not rank as one of Carpenter’s best , but by golly it’s certainly one of his most enjoyably silly and action-packed ventures. I just wish he would make films like this again.
Now… where’s my bubblegum?