They influence our decisions without us knowing it. They numb our senses
without us feeling it. They control our lives without us realizing it. They Live.
Aliens are systematically gaining control of the earth by masquerading
as humans and lulling the public into submission. Humanity's last chance
lies with a lone drifter who stumbles upon a harrowing discovery - a unique
pair of sunglasses that reveal the terrifying and deadly truth.
have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And
I'm all out of bubblegum."
The idea that aliens control our world and secretly pull the strings on
which we all dance is nothing new, nor is it particularly unusual. But
in They Live, John Carpenter turns it into the almost-ultimate word
in satires of American culture at the end of the twentieth century. It
would be the ultimate, in fact, if Paul Verhoeven had not beaten him to
the punch in the previous year with RoboCop. Both films depict an
America that is in the terminal stages of its addiction to capitalism,
although they also approach the material from completely different tacks.
While RoboCop uses a cog in the increasingly totalitarian wheel
to depict a system and a world gone mad, They Live instead tells
the tale from the perspective of a total outsider. It is not a coincidence
that our central protagonist's name translates into English as "nothing".
He is a full representation of the ever-growing underclass that the wheel
rolls over. Here, John Carpenter's fiendish imagination fleshes out a tale
of who really rules in a world where the President is basically an actor.
Nada, played with a surprising restraint by Roddy Piper, starts the story
as exactly what his name implies. He is nothing, a mere cog in the system
that is leaving him without a place to work. As he talks his way into a
job on a construction site, one of his new co-workers shows him a place
to stay and get food. Coincidentally, it happens to be near a church where
some strange goings-on can be observed. Meanwhile, the television set in
the nearby outdoor group home is acting up, breaking the program every
so often to present a speech that, in fragmentary form, makes little sense.
Most of the residents dismiss it as just being the work of a crank, but
Nada's curiosity grows until he sneaks into the aforementioned church and
discovers that the broadcasts are coming from there. Not long after, the
police raid the church, and the people hacking the television signal are
scattered to the four winds. But Nada manages to investigate what the police
The moment when Nada opens the box and finds nothing but sunglasses is
puzzling, but nothing can prepare one for what soon follows. Putting them
on, he discovers that what the man on the hacked television signal has
been saying is true. Signs depicting models suddenly bear messages saying
"MARRY AND REPRODUCE", and it gets even more puzzling from there. It is
not until a rich-looking businessman comes to buy a newspaper that the
shocking truth becomes fully evident. How John Carpenter so seamlessly
pulled off the contrasts between the world we see and that monochrome "real"
world would make for an amazing audio commentary in itself. By most commercial
standards, the film was a roaring success, earning over three times its
production budget at the box office. Matter of fact, it only cost two-thirds
what it cost to make Escape From New York. Carpenter must have kept
in practice in the years between these two films, as They Live looks
more like it cost fourteen million.
Chris Carter must have really liked both The Thing and They Live,
as almost all of The X-Files' material is more or less directly
lifted from those two films. This, however, is an example of the aliens
secretly controlling the world idea done the right way. Knowing that the
idea alone is too preposterous for the audience to accept, Carpenter surrounds
it with details of the workings of their society within a society. In less
time than it takes Carter and company to meander around a single X-Files episode, Carpenter creates a living, breathing alien civilisation. He expertly
suspends reality in graduating steps. It is not until the second act that
we get the idea that all is not what it seems, and then it is only for
brief flashes. Our hero reacts in much the same manner as any of us would.
First by having doubts about his sanity, then by hedonistically exploiting
the situation. It is not until the final act that our heroes get it into
their heads to do something about it. By this time, the monochrome effects
showing the aliens in their true form are minimised. It has the pleasant
side effect of emphasising that the heroes now see clearly.
If there is a weakness in They Live, it may be that the pacing is
off. Scenes that establish the problem and its solution go by in less than
a minute at times, but a brawl between the two main characters takes more
than five minutes. There also seems to be a sense that the resistance network
shown consists of only one cell somewhere in America. Perhaps this was
the effect that Carpenter wanted, but it does throw the viewer out of the
film at times. Roddy Piper is not the best actor, but this part literally
has his name all over it. His dialogue in the bank robbery could only have
come out of his mouth. This soon gave rise to the Wrestler Rule: when you
want a character to sound boisterous nine out of ten times, cast a former
professional wrestler. Keith David does not let the side for "real" actors
down, either. His portrayal of slowly becoming more of a believer is what
keeps the viewer in the reality of the film during much of its latter half.
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- The line "I have come here to chew bubble
gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum." was ad-libbed by Roddy
Piper. According to director John Carpenter, Piper had taken the line from
a list of ideas he had for his pro wrestling interviews.
- The credited writer "Frank Armitage" is
a reference to William Gibson's book "Neuromancer."
- The two critics speaking against violence on film criticize director
- Writer "Frank Armitage" is actually director John Carpenter.
- The fight between Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David) was
only supposed to last 20 seconds, but Piper and David decided to fight
it out for real, only faking the hits to the face and groin. They rehearsed
the fight for three weeks. Carpenter was so impressed he kept the 5 minute
and 20 second scene intact.
- The communicators that the guards use are the P.K.E. meters from Ghost
- Roddy Piper's character never gives his
name nor is he referred to by name throughout the entire movie. He is simply
referred to as "Nada" in the credits, which means "nothing" in Spanish.
- There is a thinly veiled jab at "Siskel
& Ebert & the Movies", with both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
as aliens. "Siskel" is denouncing George A. Romero and John Carpenter as
too violent. (In fact, Siskel had written a scathing review of Romero's Night of the Living Dead.)
- The only character given a first and last name is Holly Thompson.
- John Carpenter wanted a truly rugged individual
to play Nada. He cast wrestler Roddy Piper in lead role after seeing him
in Wrestlemania III. Carpenter remembered Keith David's performance
in The Thing and wrote the role of Frank specifically for the actor.
- When Frank angrily asks Nada how many people he had killed, Nada
replies that they weren't people. The only human character killed by Nada
is Holly Thompson.