The Test of Time: They Live (1988)

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether or not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster

So…it’s come to this. Perhaps my favorite John Carpenter film, the one that squeezes together so many genres that’s ghosts of Blockbuster Video still don’t know exactly which aisle it belongs on. It has a lotta parts: western, sci-fi, action, comedy, camp, conspiracy, and social commentary. But that's what has always made it interesting as it never tried to be just one thing. Instead, it wanted to be everything.

I think what I’ve always admired about this week's subject comes from Carpenter’s presentation. Nothing so cheap, so inheritably goofy should've end up as interesting or thought provoking especially with WWF (he wasn't part of the E days) wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead role. Let’s face it. After The Rock (and I guess Hogan), few wrestlers can carry a picture. However, it's damn shame that this is his biggest role to date because Piper’s performance makes a good chunk of the film, but does the whole thing stand the Test of Time?

Under the examination: They Live

Aliens love watches. Maybe it's one of those new smartwatches?

THE STORY: Drifter John Nada has moseyed down to Los Angeles looking for work during the rough Reagan years. He doesn’t have much but his backpack, boots, and a fine flannel shirt but he’s willing to work. He meets another blue-collar guy at a tent camp where many fine, but down on their luck types have gathered. And then things get a little weird. Without much to do, Nada starts to nose around finally learning that the campground is a secret meeting place for those who can see (with the help of some badass sunglasses). He learns aliens have infuriated the planet, hiding amongst us, and ruling over all those still asleep. Only with the glasses can someone tell the difference. Nada leads the revolution, killing one ugly bastard after another, and having a lot of fun in the process.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: As mentioned in the intro, Piper’s performance really works here (along with Keith David who should star in all Carpenter films), and it’s not like the dude delivered any lines with depth or real acting ability. Instead, he’s got this loose, rough persona thing going for him. A big, muscled guy with tight jeans, a bad haircut, and a special ability to deliver horrifically terrible one-liners in B-movie perfection (“Mama don’t like tattletales" or the famous “All out of bubble gum” speech among many, many more). While Schwarzenegger always had a few good one-liners, I can't think of another movie that has more that work than They Live.  

And since Carpenter pushed the envelope of how many one-liners a film could stand, he also pushed the length of the standard fist fight. Yes, clocking in at over five minutes, it's stupidly long but damn it if it isn't still great. They take a real beating and supposedly actually beat the shit out of each other. You know it's classic if even South Park decides it needs a parody. Then there's the music, always a strong point of a Carpenter production. Here he truly evokes the Western theme, immediately getting viewers into the mindset that Nada is the man with no name out to set this corrupt town straight.

Not exactly the dynamic duo, but good enough.

More than anything else, it's Carpenter's alternations of Ray Nelson's short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (which is good if you've never enjoyed) that truly make the movie. The simple yet badass glasses allow Nada and us to see past all the bullshit, to see what really is in the world. Money isn't just currency, it's our God. Hot chicks in skimpy bikinis remind us to reproduce. Everything has a painfully obvious message to instruct us to act or react. Or course, it's those 1957 cheese dip faces who are behind it all, but without our own pair of shades, how the hell do we know this isn't the truth?

WHAT BLOWS NOW: This is perhaps the most difficult category as this one of those films that I’ve always tried to introduce and brainwash others into loving. Hell, I even force my students to watch They Live (and read Nelson the original story) and then write an essay over them. Since I do that, I've got a good understanding what the average 18 year old kid thinks on what blows and doesn’t. Mainly, it's that the effects look cheap (they did in 88, too) and they're painfully bad at times now. The little drones flying around or the alien faces just look dated. Personally, I dig the alien makeup but I can see where the average viewer might not be able to get past it. 

Could've been the next Magnum PI...

The pacing isn't always great either. Until Nada finally slips on the shades, nothing too much happens as he wanders around, looking at shit as if he knows what he’s looking for. Oh sure, Carpenter tries to play it like a detective film, but Nada has to be the worst detective outside of Jeffery Lebowski. 

THE VERDICT: I don’t see They Live fading from glory any time soon. Sure, it’ll forever be stuck in the 1980s, but this movie is about that decade, and it actually had something to say about it. Not only does the thing play entertaining as hell, but its shows that cheese and low budget doesn’t mean the final product has to be void of saying something meaningful. After all, that’s what good science fiction does: it provides that glance in the mirror so we can see just how ugly we’ve all become (well, unless you’ve had work done).




I'm pretty sure this isn't from They Live, but it's pretty damn cool anyway.



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