*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie. So...SPOILERS.
As I was rewatching The Thing, I started thinking about other John Carpenter movies I love, and I knew I had to revisit They Live. Carpenter movies are like Pringles to me, I can’t stop after just one. The other thing about my favorite Carpenter movies (The Thing, They Live, Escape from New York) is that when I’m watching them, I start to think that particular movie might be my favorite of all time. And since I recently crowned The Thing as my favorite, my top pick was vulnerable. I got past it, though. I still consider The Thing Carpenter’s best work, but man, They Live is a very close second.
A movie starring Roddy Piper made me question the very essence of existence.
They Live is possibly the least subtle anti-capitalist film of all time. In the film, it turns out that we’re all being controlled by aliens through subliminal messaging that intends to keep us docile and, more importantly, shopping. Once Piper puts on the glasses, he sees that money has “This is your God” written on it. It doesn’t take much thought to figure out what this movie has to say about our obsession with greed in the 1980s (and ever since, really).
I don’t have a problem with anti-capitalist messages in film or anything else. Our obsession with money leads to suffering for the many while the few benefit. But I do get a little dubious when I see that message in a movie that I have purchased twice (and the second time it even had a sticker that said “BUY” on it. Isn’t it all a bit hypocritical? Yeah, but what are you going to do? I don’t think it takes away from the message of the film, but it does give me pause. I can’t help but think, Yes, I agree that all this greed is bad, and here’s my money to prove it!
Beyond the hypocrisy of a Hollywood movie preaching against greed, there’s a bigger question that looms behind any kind of story that contains this type of message: if the way we’re living is wrong, then what’s the right way? I ask this question all the time because so much of modern life is critiqued as a waste of life. We all work too much. We watch too much TV/movies/online videos. We play too many videogames. We spend too much time on our phones. We drink too much. We take too many drugs. We eat too much. We read the wrong news. We just have kids because society tells us to. We only have monogamous relationships because society tells us to. We support the wrong politicians.
Basically, we’re all zombies doing exactly what the powerful want us to do so they can take advantage of us. So what should we be doing? Armed rebellion? Against who, precisely? So we should live more simply, then? Just hang out in the woods until we die? No one ever really gives an answer. Or worse, one person’s answer is another person’s example of a wasted life. For example, many would say that focusing on raising children and having a family is most important, but others would argue that our idea of family is a form of control. Or maybe someone says we’re just supposed to enjoy life instead of worry so much about money and possessions. Okay, but what if my idea of enjoying life enjoys eating and partying as much as I want? Doesn’t that put me right back where I started: under the control of society? Or maybe I’m supposed to devote my life to cause for the betterment of a specific group of people. But what’s the right cause? And by picking one, am I saying that another cause isn’t worthy? And let’s go one step further in this existential clusterfuck I’ve created: if we’re all going to end up dead anyway and the sun is eventually going to blow up and destroy the earth, then why do anything ever? In the long run, nothing matters, right? This is why I don’t like thinking too deeply about stuff like this, because my answer always ends up in this dark place where all life has ended and nothing ever mattered anyway. I think we all know this deep down, and we allow life’s distractions to take hold, and we just try our best to have our own version of a full life. For my part, my family is the most important goal of my life. Now that I have a child, I have a pretty clear purpose from here on out. On top of that, I want to read, watch, and play as much stuff as I can, and I want to leave behind as many articles about it as possible. Will all of this disappear someday? Probably. But who cares?
I’m probably overthinking it. Buy maybe not. Perhaps not having an answer is an answer in itself. There’s nothing that can be truly done about it, so fuck it. Just do whatever you think is best. In that way, They Live is more about the fantasy of a having a very specific villain to fight. It’s kind of saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had some alien overlords to fight and kill?” Of course, the allegorical nature of the film suggests that we do have some overlords in the real world: the rich. And the fight is to expose their control over us. I feel like we do that now, and we do fight the good fight. But there are still plenty of people either unaware of the truth or unwilling to believe it. And now we’re embroiled in this constant battle over what the “truth” is. I don’t see this ending anytime soon, either. So I guess what I’m saying is, “Bring on the mind-controlling alien overlords so we have a common enemy!” You know, the Watchmen (comic, not movie) plan.
Back to the actual movie, though. Isn’t it great that such a campy, entertaining movie can lead me down this existential rabbit hole? To be honest, I usually enjoy They Live for it’s surface qualities: the crazy fight scene, Piper’s performance, the funny dialogue, etc. But much like The Thing, it’s nice that there’s the option to take a deep dive when you watch this movie. If you love this movie as much as I do and want to take a deep dive, I recommend this book.
The late, great Roddy Piper
I was always more of an Ultimate Warrior fan growing up, but “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was one of my favorites, as well. Pro wrestling has always been just as much about acting as it has physicality, and Piper was perfectly suited for it. You might not expect much of him as only an actor, though (which is why I poke fun at the idea of a Piper movie making me think about existence in the topic header above). With They Live, he proved he is more than just a wrestler who also acts. Sure, he never became a star along the lines of Dwayne Johnson or anything, but his performance in They Live is special.
It might just be that the character is perfect for Piper. He’s meant to be a hardworking everyman (hence his character name of Nada, which we only learn from the end credits) who is shown what’s really going on and takes action. It also helps that Nada transforms into an action hero after he sees what’s going on, because Piper is a natural for one-liners and shit-talking, in general: the famous bubblegum line (which was written by Piper himself), telling Keith David (who’s great in this, too) to put on the glasses or start eating that trash can, telling an old lady she looks like her face fell in the cheese dip back in 1957, etc. Some of the lines aren’t necessarily that great, but his delivery sells them.
I like Piper in this for the same reason he was so popular as a wrestler: he’s fun to watch. They Live could be a very dark, depressing movie, but with the humor added to the script and Piper’s performance, it ends up being a surprisingly fun look at how our obsession with capitalism is destroying humanity.
I’ve seen They Live at least a dozen times, but I’ve watched the fight scene from They Live at least thirty times. It is so ridiculous and awesome that it would make They Live a movie worth watching even if the rest of it was garbage. Thankfully, the fight is just the icing on the cake of awesomeness that is They Live. Let me break down all the reasons why I love this fight.
The fighters - I never knew I wanted to see Roddy Piper fight Keith David until I saw this movie. Not only are they both convincing fighters, they are also hilarious throughout: Keith David saying, “You dirty motherfucker!” after Piper tries to hit him in the balls, only to end up kneeing Piper in the balls multiple times later in the fight; Piper breaking David’s back window and immediately dropping the board, like it was okay if he had connected with David’s skull with the board, but breaking a car window is crossing a line (you don’t fuck with a man’s car, I guess), David then trying to break a bottle into a makeshift knife but breaking it too much, Piper constantly telling David to put on the glasses, etc. It all still makes me laugh after all this time.
The sheer length of it (that’s what she said) - I know this is why the fight is so famous, but it’s so fucking crazy. This is not a movie about fighting. But Carpenter is the type of director to just go with something. So when Piper and David and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada came up with this lengthy fight sequence, he just kept it in rather than doing the normal thing and cutting it down to two minutes or so. What’s crazier is that there are multiple times where this fight could have ended, but it just keeps going. Those are my favorite moments. You keep thinking, “Okay, wow, that was a long-ass fight sc-oh, wait, they’re still fighting!” It’s so perfectly over-the-top.
The way it’s shot - I think I like Carpenter’s movies partly because the guy uses plenty of long takes. He isn’t flashy about it or anything, but in his movies, the lack of cuts makes it easier to follow the action. If this scene had twenty more cuts in it, it wouldn’t be as impressive. By letting it all happen in long takes, we can see how much work the actors and stunt coordinators put into this awesome fight.
There is no real aftermath to it - Yes, David puts on the glasses and teams up with Piper, but aside from a little limping and whatnot, they both seem fine pretty soon after the fight. These guys would be laid up for days after this fight in real life. Instead, we get a nearly six minute, brutal fight, then these guys run off and start killing aliens. I love it.
The sound effects - I love horribly fake punching sound effects, and the sound used here is akin to the crazy loud punches Indiana Jones throws.
The yelling - Both of these guys yelling at each other throughout is pretty funny, but my favorite moment is near the end of the fight. David is resting against a wall, thinking the fight is over for the tenth time, and Piper comes lumbering over. Before he even gets hit, David just starts yelling. These dudes are screaming cavemen at this point.
The reason - This is a fight that happens primarily because Keith David won’t put on a pair of sunglasses. He is truly a principled man. He’ll get into the most epic fight every committed to film instead of simply putting on some sunglasses. I respect that.
Okay, that’s enough about the fight scene. I’m going to watch it on YouTube a couple more times then call it a day.
Do I regret buying this?
My only regret from buying this film twice is that it contributes to the control our hideous alien overlords hold over us. And by watching this film multiple times every year, I am staying asleep instead of taking action. Oh well.
The “cripple fight” scene from South Park that recreates this fight is great, but think about it: it was pretty ridiculous for that fight to be in a cartoon; these guys did it live action!
Easily the most political, satirical of Carpenter’s films. But I like it just as much for its surface qualities.
The messages of this movie:
TV turns us into zombies.
The rich and powerful are our alien overlords.
This is all still true.
“I believe in America.”
I love all the real messages: obey, conform, stay asleep, no ideas, no independent thought, marry and reproduce, etc.
My favorite is on money: this is your god.
I couldn't make out what was on the cigarette packs, but I'm sure it was good.
“It figures it would be something like this.”
The film gets so quiet when he gets to Holly's house, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Piper gets thrown through the window. It's so abrupt it makes me laugh every time.
Keith David tosses that money in the box pretty easily. I wonder how many takes that took.
“Put the glasses on!”
Siskel and Ebert are aliens. That's why they don't like Carpenter’s movies! Seriously, though, it's a bold move to refer to yourself in your own movie.