As with many of director John Carpenter’s films, They Live has built a cult following over time due to a collection of highly iconic moments. Now that the movie has been added to the Netflix library, let's take a moment to revisit a work that is indisputably flawed, but continues to persevere.
Based on a 1963 short story entitled “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, They Live is a 1988 movie where at an unknown time in the past the world has been taken over by aliens. Using subliminal mind control they keep the human population docile by encouraging their base needs: to consume, obey, reproduce, and conform. However some are able to fight through the mind control and when construction worker John stumbles across a box of specially tainted sunglasses he gains the ability to see through the veil and witness the world for how it really is, as well as becoming able to spot the aliens among us.
Unfortunately for the movie, that above summary covers everything. They Live never shakes off its short story origins and even the rewritten and padded-out script from Carpenter clearly struggles to fill its already short 94 minute runtime, with many shots and scenes lasting far longer than necessary. Star Roddy Piper (a professional wrestler come actor) is not a leading man by any stretch of the term, and the acting from all throughout is wooden and unengaging. The movie was mostly negatively received on release. Whereas sometimes in retrospect this comes to be viewed as a travesty of taste, you’d be hard pressed to argue that They Live should have been a box office hit.
But even though the movie takes too long to get to the point (and then spends most of the time after the point dribbling away with little new to say), They Live punches big with some genuinely iconic moments. When John first tries on the glasses and sees, through a stylistic monochrome colour palette, the extent to which the subliminal capitalist message of subservience is being broadcast from every conceivable angle, you will see why the resulting imagery is oft-referenced and been the subject of many a pastiche. Plus, who other than Roddy Piper could give birth to the deadpan and highly referenced line, “I came here to chew bubble gum, and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
For me, when it becomes clear that someone I am talking to has not seen They Live there is one – utterly ridiculous – scene that I will always use to get them to watch it. Those who have seen it never forget it, and those who have not are always stunned by it. I am, of course, referring to The Fight Scene in which John tries to convince fellow construction worker Frank to put on the glasses and see the world for what it is. Frank refuses. John insists. They fight. And then they fight. And then they fight some more. In all, the scene lasts nearly 6 minutes and frequently appears in ‘best ever fight scene’ lists, although truthfully ‘best’ is pushing it when just ‘longest’ will do!
They Live is pretty much a one-and-done movie. If you do come back to it then your brain will likely glaze over until you hit the ‘good bits’. It does feature a delightfully cold performance from Meg Foster whom John inherently trusts for no good reason whatsoever; you’ll shout at the screen as he makes himself utterly vulnerable despite everything about her glacial sultriness exuding unsympathetic vibes! Come for the fight. Stay for the fight. Make a drink and return to the fight. Oh, the fight is still going on? Well, best put on the glasses…
Words by Mike Record
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