Why – They Live – Lives On

John Carpenter’s 1988 action sci fi movie They Live is a classic example of how sometimes a deeper concept can be shown in a more entertaining way. Based on Ray Nelson’s short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning,’ They Live explores how the media and leaders can manipulate the greater population and what lengths we will go to, to achieve wealth and status.

A Lasting Relevance

They Live has so many plot holes, bad acting, interesting editing among other foibles that it should be destined to B grade hell, yet people view this film today nearly 30 years on and appreciate how relevant it is today possibly even more than when it was first released. The term ‘fake news’ and people believing their side more than others because it came from their source no matter how questionable, cements the point of what this set out to achieve. Unfortunately I believe this will continue to be relevant for generations to come. In the interim, enjoy what is one of the most intelligent, yet somehow completely idiotic movies to ever be released.

Plot Breakdown

They Live follows John Nada (played by Roddy Piper), an incredibly well looked after drifter who makes his way to a new city looking for work and the grave discovery he makes which lets him see the world for it really is. Making an immediate friend in Frank (Keith David) at a construction site where he is hired to work, Nada is taken to the local shanty town where the city’s homeless live.

It is near here that he finds a church which is not all that it seems. Upon some investigation he discovers some superbly 80’s sunglasses which when one wears them, turns the world into a black and white nightmare where half the population looks like decomposing lizards and billboards read phrases like ‘Obey’, ‘Marry and Reproduce’ and ‘Consume.’

Traffic lights have speakers which repeat the phrase ‘sleep’ and small drones travel the skies keeping an eye out for people looking to disturb the peace.

John blows his cover when he freaks out and starts abusing a lizard woman who, using her watch, notifies her fellow lizard people (Steve Jobs you’re a thief!) and then decides to kill two cops who confront him. You of course finish this off by going into a bank and shooting a few more people. He escapes by taking a lady who has had way too much Xanax hostage and making her drive to her house where she manages to smash a glass over his head and push him through a pane glass window. He survives the three story fall by hanging out under a bridge for a while and then seeks out Frank which leads us to one of the greatest fight scenes in cinema history.

This includes eye gouging, biting, repetitively kneeing someone in the balls and as you would expect some great wrestling moves. This scene between Piper and David will go down in history as one of the greats, in John Carpenters own words ‘I wanted to show a real fight.’ He succeeded. Immediately following the fight Frank is awoken to the real world too, so our heroes of the lower class decide to walk bruised and battered which using the accompanying bluesy theme music, (a departure from Carpenters usual synth perfection) almost seems a parody of itself. The final act shows why Carpenter is a master of the genre, with brilliant shoot out sequences and wonderfully over the top action explosions and deaths.

A Timeless Voice

You also can’t mention this movie without talking about the kick ass catch phrases ranging from ‘brother life’s a bitch and she’s packing heat’ to the generation transcending ‘I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.

In a recent interview Carpenter has stated that Piper would use phrases like these in his post wrestling press conferences and thought they’d be great for an action hero.

Not quite sure how ‘mama don’t like taddle tales’ suits a man who weighs over 200 pounds and has a mullet that dropped panties, but who’s gunna argue with the him? Not me.


Article by: Nathan Last – an action and sci fi fan from Australia (no he doesn’t wear fishnet shirts like Bennett in Commando) who believes the 80’s and 90’s were the golden age of cinema. Part time writer, full time ultimate action fan. To get in touch drop the team a line

5 COMMENTS

  1. […] A cross between sci-fi, horror and with just enough action for Piper to flex his muscles, They Live was a hit on release but its reputation and cultural impact would grow steadily in the years that followed thanks in no small part to the artist and fan of the movie, Shepard Fairey picking up its Obey tagline for his own branding. Today, They Live is seen as Pipers finest performance, its brilliant fighting scenes, classic lines and still relevant message have stood the test of time making it arguably one of the most critically acclaimed movies on this entire list (read more about They Live‘s lasting relevance here). […]

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