Forgotten Film Friday: They Live

By Michael McNulty

Roddy “Rowdy” Piper substitutes his spandex for a flannel shirt and some special shades in John Carpenter’s, cheesier than a croque monsieur, cult classic, sci-fi action thrill ride, They Live. Hitting the big screen in 1988 and scripted under a Carpenter pseudonym, They Live is based on Ray Nelson’s short story Eight O’clock in the Morning.

A cocktail of John Rambo and Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, Nada (Roddy Piper) emerges from the early morning mist with nothing more than a backpack strapped around his shoulders. Wandering through the hazy streets of downtown LA, a wasteland populated by the underprivileged masses who gather round shopping trollies of collected junk, this is a world where work is hard to come by. Shucked off at the employment office because there’s “nothing available right now,” Nada trudges on, past a proselytizing preacher holding sermon on the streets (who speaks of mass control by godless creatures) and a man staring slack jawed, eyes glazed at a television set in a shop front window.

Nada meets Frank (Keith David), a hard-bitten Detroit born construction worker who has lost faith in America, but insists on toeing the line and follows him back to Justiceville, a ramshackle shantytown and soup kitchen. Once there Nada discovers, in a nearby Spanish-style church, an underground operation who believe that the human race is being oppressed through subliminal messages in the mass media by an unseen alien elite.

All this seems like mumbo-jumbo until Nada cops himself a pair of all-seeing sunglasses that reveal to him the true colours (or lack thereof) of the world around him. The glitz of billboards, magazines and consumer products disguise messages telling people to OBEY and seemingly normal business men and women are in fact skeletal faced aliens profiting off of the subdued masses.

Nada refusing to stand idly by attempts to recruit a reluctant Frank and after a prolonged 5 minutes and 40 seconds, epically choreographed fist fight (one of the film’s highlights) manages to do so. With the scene set, the two head off to kick a little alien ass.

They Live is a clever, to the point film with moments of great visual flair. The night time raid on Justiceville, as bulldozers and armed police officers tear down the camp, helicopters circling overhead, is an electrifying sequence that’s superbly crafted. Pair that with great one liners of the likes of, “I’m here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum,” before Nada guns down a bank of hollow eyed alien baddies and it’s no wonder the film has cemented itself as a cult classic.

The film was also Carpenter’s response to then President Ronald Reagan’s America. A scathing indictment of Reaganomics and the 80s’ Yuppie mentality. The film pulled at the underlying premise that if the rich get richer, then you’ll benefit too, with Nada Carpenter’s call to arms for the working classes.

Alarmingly, if you rejig a few of the pieces and change a few names what made They Live relevant in the 80s, makes it relevant today. Nada’s blue collar everyman begins the film believing in America. “I deliver a hard day’s work for my money. I just want the chance. It’ll come. I believe in America,”

he tells Frank after they first meet. A sentiment that was snapped up by the Trump campaign and spat out in the form of “Make America Great Again,” capitalising on the American people’s belief in the American dream, the pursuit of happiness and individual wealth. It was enough to see Trump, billionaire businessman, elected president and disappointingly will probably result in a further increase in the wealth gap and the concentration of wealth amongst the elite who sit at the very top.

They Live is as good now as it was when it came out nearly 30 years ago. Perfect Friday night viewing.

Donald Trump, billionaire republican, now sits in the white house, which isn’t to equate the man to a money hungry, self-involved, profiteering alien bent on world-domination (well maybe just a bit). But, more that a man of his background managed to speak to a large population, built a campaign around the simple slogan “Make America Great Again,” and the promise of, let’s face it, money and found that enough to see himself elected president and, disappointingly, continue the concentration of wealth amongst the elite who sit at the very top.

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