They Live (1988) Review: I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…
That now iconic line helped define one the most influential and best loved cult classic films of all time – John Carpenter’s They Live.
They Live (1988)
‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, of ‘80s WWF wrestling fame, plays an unnamed blue collar drifter (identified as “Nada” in the credits) who stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that let him see the world as the sinister charade it really is.
When Nada puts on the Ray Ban-styled glasses, everything changes. Magazines and billboard ads become black on white commands to “OBEY” and “CONSUME.” Dollar bills read “THIS IS YOUR GOD,” and most horrifying of all, some humans (the rich and powerful mostly) are revealed to be grotesque zombie-faced doppelgangers of mankind.
From the moment he puts the space-age specs on and discovers the hideous humanoids, Nada is on a mission to chew bubble-gum and kick ass, and he’s all out – well, you know the rest.
It’s been parodied, referenced, and paid tribute to non-stop for the last 25 years. Music videos re-enact it, popular video games lift the lines, and New World Order conspiracy nuts are still using clips from it in YouTube videos exposing the reptilian master race. So why does pop culture love They Live so much?
Well, there’s the pure uniqueness and novelty of a story about magic sunglasses that give the sheep the eyes of the shepherd, the always relevant tale of the Haves stomping on the Have Nots, and the loner lead that ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper played so well.
It was Piper’s own ad-lib, in fact, that spawned the legendary “kick ass and chew bubblegum” line.
The heroes of They Live are bottom of the barrel working class guys – men who break their backs to earn a few bucks, and sleep in a shack after a hard day’s work. And the bad guys? They’re the rich, the powerful, and the authority figures. So you can already guess what They Live is really all about; modern-day class struggle, the oppression of the working class, and a commentary on the vapid consumerism engulfing Western culture.
But mostly, it’s about Roddy Piper laying a big hurt on our zombie-alien overlords, shotgun style.
He may not be wearing his trademark red kilt and “Hot Rod” shirt, but Piper does bring a little pro wrestling action to the movie. I’m talking about the now infamous back alley brawl with Keith David.
The great and powerful IMDb.com tells us that this fight wasn’t entirely smoke and mirriors and, save for the groin and face shots, these two guys were pretty much going at it, bodyslams and all. Ouch.
You’ll recognize Keith David as the guy who starred alongside Kurt Russel in director John Caprtenter’s earlier masterpiece, The Thing. Cult T.V. and film star Meg Foster, the woman with the soul-piercing blue eyes, rounds out the rest of the leading cast. Both are good, but Piper’s great.
And that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is what makes They Live what it is. It’s the man behind the blue collar hero that’s tough as nails, and probably about as smart.
‘Rowdy’ proves he’s got some acting chops beyond his larger than life wrestling persona, and it’s a small wonder Carpenter didn’t reuse Hot Rod in any of his later films, as he’s done with so many of his other favourite actors.
Perhaps one of the most powerful reasons it’s invaded pop culture for the last two decades is that They Live refuses to be dated.
It was born out of the Wall Street wasteland of avarice in the 1980s, but it’s just as relevant 25 years later. As men and women across the Western world salivate at the sight of the latest Apple-branded electronic device, and scurry like lemmings from one idiot box to another, it’s hard not to think of that one phrase that seems to saturate and underpin the entire film, “They Live, We Sleep.”
With this 1988 cult classic, Carpenter again invokes his uncanny ability to make the otherwise ridiculously unbelievable so real, it scares us. Whether it’s hideous zombie aliens that control the world, a shape-shifting terror from beyond the stars, or Chinese occult mythology, he can take a page from a cheesy pulp magazine, and drop it right into your backward.
Fans of the bearded king of horro/sci-fi will recognize his usual home-made throbbing synth soundtrack, and his penchant for open endings.
If you want to quantify it, They Live is one part action flick, one part sci-fi movie, and one part commentary on Western consumerism and greed. But any way you slice it, it’s all parts awesome.
If you haven’t checked this one off your cult classic bucket list yet – I suggest you either put on this movie, “or start eating that trash can.”