Looking Back At THEY LIVE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THEY LIVE

Martin Rayburn came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass - and he's all out of bubblegum.

I remember, whilst watching They Live for the first time back in 1988, being about five or ten minutes in and thinking "this is just wooden B-movie sci-fi garbage." I could've easily turned it off then, but having likely paid a couple of pound for the VHS rental, and being notoriously tight, I was going to get my money's worth.

Sometimes being notoriously tight really pays off.

Despite the limited acting ability of professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead role, the out-there idea of aliens secretly taking over and subliminally lulling the populace into complacency (through TV, media, consumerism, and other distractions), They Live still holds up surprisingly well and remains a very interesting watch today. Writer/director John Carpenter made this film during the Regan era of the 1980s, but today in the age of the 1%, Donald Trump, police brutality, right-wing supremacy, Brexit, and manipulation of the media, They Live feels like an incredibly prescient film, if there ever was one. I'd go as far as saying it is more relevant today, in regard to its biting social commentary, than when it came out (there are certainly more screens, more apps, more distractions in 2021), although I can admit that's perhaps more down to maturity on my part and being more socially conscious than my teenage self. Here in the UK in 2021, there are extremely clear parallels within They Live that feels so apt now for Boris Johnson and his 'one-nation' Conservatives, and for those that bother to 'put on the glasses' to look past the spin, and understand that what the masses believe to be choice is actually crafted control.
Like both Trump & Johnson, They Live is a film which is best when not taken too seriously. Despite having a (moderately) bigger budget and more special effects than most of its 1950s counterparts, They Live has that spirit in its bones of a classic B-movie. Like Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, it doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is whilst events unfold. But what it ends up being is an intelligent, hilarious, and extremely entertaining movie, even though the subject matter is not very nuanced; the political satire is front and centre in your face and right up there without question. It's like a 1950s sci-fi piece about invaders from other planets seeking us out for domination, only shifted in the 1980s and given both realistic grounding and a squeeze of pure hard-boiled action film dynamic. It has the danger of being too cheesy, and as my younger self definitely felt going in originally, dismissible material, but somehow it all works much better than expected, and before you know it you're hooked and along for the ride, and They Live ends up residing in your memory for the rest of your life.

For a film like this to work well you need a convincing leading actor. An everyman who can be the audience surrogate as the mysterious events unfold within a world that is almost, but not quite, like our own. Having never watched WWF at the time, I had no previous knowledge of who Roddy Piper was. He sure doesn't have the acting chops to carry most other movies, and certainly isn't built like your traditional everyman that's for sure, but Piper is strangely perfect for the part here (his character is never named within the film but has been referred to elsewhere as "Nada", in a reflection of that). He's not exactly dumb, but he's not the smartest tool in the box either. What he is though, is absolutely the right man to make the discovery of a lifetime.
Carpenter sets up the story perfectly well with its ambiguity - it's all from Piper's point of view. He's a drifter who looks for employment within the construction industry, and is intrigued by some seemingly strange events within a church near the slums he lives in. After an out-of-the-blue incredibly violent police raid, Nada finds a pair of sunglasses left behind. He puts it on and his world goes completely awry; plastered on billboards, TV screens and even printed on money, there are subliminal messages telling the masses to "SLEEP" "OBEY" "CONSUME" "WATCH TV" "DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY" "MARRY AND REPRODUCE" or "THIS IS YOUR GOD." The aliens are here and they are in control. Again, this could all be terribly cheesy in the wrong hands. But Carpenter trusts the material to the point where he takes it seriously enough to hold the attention, whilst playing it knowingly B-movie at the same time, and Piper's casting is that attitude in a nutshell. When he puts on the glasses the first time and freaks out at what is all around him, it's one of the best crafted, and possibly the funniest, segment of the movie, but it's filmed unpretentiously and with a direction that is always very concise and with flashes of imagination (those black and white inserts, obvious, but always fun). That's a perfect example of how Carpenter & Piper straddle the line between serious and knowing.
All of this said, it would be hard to argue against the suggestion that "Rowdy" Roddy Piper was primarily cast to ensure the extended choreographed fight scene with Keith David's Frank was played out to perfection. And if that was the case, then kudos to all involved as it was the right decision. The BIG fight sequence in They Live ranks as one of the most intense and amusing in the history of cinema. Head and shoulders above the gun-toting action sequences the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger were delivering at the time. This is real, backstreet brawling. You think it's ending. It isn't. You think they're done. They're not. This is one of those rare cinematic moments that once viewed can never be forgotten, and so it becomes your definitive example of a fight scene. If you've never seen They Live before, I can guarantee that once you've witnessed this fight scene nothing else will ever live up to it and you'll be comparing every other similar sequence (but, really, there's NOTHING like this one) to They Live for the remainder of your life.
There's a kind of attitude about They Live, as with others from Carpenter, that reflect cynicism and outrage at the system, but all in the guise of something much more sinister at work. Many of the best sci-fi books, films and TV shows deliver cleverly crafted criticisms of society as it is, the underlying current in They Live is no different, getting some very good jabs in. At its core, this is a satire on the controls of society and breaking off from them (or just not being within them to start with, as Piper's drifter is). It might be layered with chum-like dialog and a tad slow for the viewer to sync into its groove, but it contains some biting satire and social commentary, a leading performance that is surprisingly connectable, that fight scene, one of Carpenter's very best musical scores, and an ending that really delivers. They Live is a great escapist movie with a message. One which is absolutely worth being reminded of today in 2021.

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