Released: November 4, 1988
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David
Availability: DVD, Blu Ray, Streaming for purchase or rental via iTunes and Amazon, Streaming for free via Hoopla if your local library has an account
Editor’s Note: On July 31, 2015 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper passed away at the age of 61. He was the author’s favorite wrestler growing up. This special edition of 1988 in Film is being published out of order in honor of his legacy.
John Carpenter deviates just slightly from his horror movie roots just enough to give wrestling icon Roddy Piper a chance to kick ass, because he’s all out of bubblegum.
What’s it About?
In They Live, Roddy Piper is a drifter, name unimportant, freshly landed in Los Angeles. Seeking work, he finds himself at a construction site. After talking his way into a job, he befriends Frank, a fellow construction worker played by Keith David.
Frank takes Piper to a tent city where he witnesses strange and prophetic television transmissions. Following the apparent source of the transmissions, apparently to rob the responsible parties, Piper ends up with a pair of sunglasses that reveal the identity of the aliens all around him, as well as the subliminal messaging influencing the working class slave class.
Killing a number of the aliens, Piper continues to evade them with the assistance of Holly, whom he has taken hostage. Holly takes advantage of a disoriented Piper by kicking him out of a window, down a hill, and onto the street, proving Piper can at least take a fall.
Piper attempts to recruit Frank to his cause, culminating in an epic street fight between the two men. A badly beaten Piper finally gets the glasses on Frank’s head, illuminating the latter to the plight of the working man. It’s revealed through exposition that the aliens, disguising themselves as the upper class, are harvesting Earth, a third world planet to them, until Earth becomes barren and the aliens move on.
The two men end up on the aliens’ space station—how isn’t really important—and attempt to destroy the satellite dishes responsible for the aliens’ camouflage on Earth. Piper is double-crossed by Holly, revealed to be assisting the aliens in their endeavors. As the aliens descend upon him, Piper is able to accomplish his three primary tasks: kill Holly, destroy the satellite dishes, and give one last finger to the aliens.
In a postscript, people across the planet are horrified as the aliens all around them are revealed.
They Live is probably best known today for Roddy Piper’s infamous line “I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” which has been coopted innumerable times since then, probably most notably by the ultraviolent mid-90s video game protagonist Duke Nukem. It’s unfortunate that this one line is the only thing most people remember about this movie, not because it’s not a great line, because it’s fantastic (and purportedly ad-libbed by Piper). Rather, because the movie is a genre film that utilizes its genre to deftly produce biting social commentary that is so of its time.
A Reagan era morality tale, Carpenter utilizes aliens to highlight the class warfare that had been a pervasive feature of the decade. While it might seem a bit on the nose to turn class warfare into a literal war, replete with the violence and desensitization that so often comes with, Carpenter is pretty adept at hiding these feelings behind a heavy veil of satire.
They Live opened with a $6 million dollar weekend on November 4th, good enough for first place during a light week at the box office. It ended up grossing $13 million against an estimated $4 million budget, making it a modest box office success. It has gone on to live in the cultural consciousness as a cult favorite, however.
Movie reviewers at the time of the release of They Live found a number of things to praise, alternately calling attention to its goofy action and its political commentary alike. It holds an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, earning it a “Certified Fresh” rating.
The themes in this film of resentment and distrust of the elite class still pervade our society today. Films like The Matrix clearly draw from this film as source material. We still see very pointed battles between the classes in movies from recent years; The Hunger Games franchise and Elysium come immediately to mind. There is a straight line that can be drawn through all these films.
Is It Any Good?
They Live was made in 1988, not a 2015 in which Dwayne Johnson has proven that wrestlers can diversify and become credible actors. Rowdy Roddy Piper was my favorite wrestler around the time this movie came out. Carpenter clearly had to adapt his film to highlight Piper’s strengths and hide his flaws, however. Wrestling is, of course, an activity that relies heavily on acting ability, but acting in the ring is clearly a very different skillset than acting on cellulose. A wrestler relies on quick, pointed statements that can disarm an opponent before even landing a single punch. So that is primarily what Piper does when he speaks, though he spends much of the movie reacting to actions around him silently. That being said, whatever acting ability Piper may lack, he definitely makes up for in sheer charisma. And he does engage in a street fight with Keith David that lasts for so absurdly long that only a wrestler could truly sell it.
Movies in the 1980s and earlier were just paced differently than films today, and it’s over a half hour into a 90 minute movie before we even see sunglasses or aliens. That’s an odd thing to see in a movie today.
Once the action does start, though, it comes pretty fast and furious. From the time Keith David and Roddy Piper absolutely destroy each other, nary a minute goes by without an explosion or bullet flying. Even with the frenetic pace of the action, the film continues to remind its audience of the overarching social message that Carpenter was delivering. It’s a terrific addition to the John Carpenter oeuvre, and watching Roddy Piper can be an absolute joy, especially when he’s channeling his inner wrestling persona.