When John Carpenter’s They Live opened in theaters 25 years ago this week, it had the honor of knocking Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers out of the #1 slot. That’s just too perfect, and also it’s also kind of weird to realize that They Live indeed opened at the top spot on the box office chart for the weekend of November 4, 1988. Maybe even weirder than the fact that a U2 concert film debuted just below it at #2. That was a different time for moviegoing, one where a great start like that meant little at the end of the day when your movie still winds up only the 75th highest-grossing of the year.
Although the sci-fi film came and went with little widespread notoriety at the time, They Live did go on to become a cult classic of varying levels, the kind revered by movie geeks for being just enough “cheesy” mixed with just enough “awesome,” recognized by academics for being a very direct social commentary on the Reagan years (and the best horror movie satirizing consumerism since Dawn of the Dead a decade earlier) and continually ignored by the mainstream for looking like a cheap, dated B movie. But it’s also a film that has become even more relevant in recent years (and was therefore prescient, as we’ve covered before) due to how it involves a disappearing middle class while the rich and poor grow on opposite sides of the economy, in wealth and population respectively.
If you’ve even just heard about They Live but have never seen it, you’ll probably be able to guess which scenes I’ve picked for the following list.
Nada (Roddy Piper) has already witnessed one doomsday preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) spouting about a conspiracy going on in America. Now there’s another one coming through the TV set in the tent city. Not only is the broadcast piracy a good expository tool, but it also kind of parallels the film itself. The Hacker is using the same mode of communication that the aliens are using to get their subliminal messages across, while Carpenter is using a Hollywood action movie commodity to send us his own anti-capitalistic points.
Putting On the Sunglasses
One of the all-time best scenes involving a protagonist’s discovery of what’s really going on. It’s the aliens among us/body snatcher realizationn combined with the superhero grasping his new powers all in one. It might only be outdone later by The Matrix. But probably not. Here we’ve got the whole POV of the character due to the sunglasses being the filter, and that helps in the identification between audience and Nada. He is us, and we’re being shown the truth along with him that the ads, the media, the money and even many of the people are secretly something else, all means of controlling us.
Here to Chew Bubblegum and Kick Ass
One of the most famous movie lines of all time, even to people who haven’t seen They Live, is spoken when Nada enters a bank to shoot up some aliens. “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… And I’m all out bubblegum” has caught on so well because it’s so goofy, seemingly an extreme parody of the usual Hollywood action one-liners. But we can read meaning into the comment, which Piper improvised. He’s implying that he’s such a tough guy that he could nonchalantly kick ass while chewing gum like it was no big deal. He has a confidence about him that is greater than even the most macho of action heroes. But he has no gum, so he has to tell us so, and we have to take his word for it.
Speaking of action, here’s another moment of the film that (1) was mostly unplanned, (2) is one of the most famous of its kind and (3) is mostly remembered for how ridiculous it is. Nada is trying to convince his friend Frank (Keith David) of the conspiracy by getting him to put the sunglasses on. And Frank really, really doesn’t want to put them on. So they have a kind of wrestling match (Piper’s professional specialty before “acting”) in an alley where the two actors are almost really beating each other up, save for punches to the face. And it goes on and on and on. Way down below you can find a video of Slavoj Zizek explaining the length as being about just how much Frank and the rest of us tend to resist the truth when it’s a blow to our ideology.
All We Are is Livestock
This scene isn’t much, and it’s not one of the memorable clips. Here we just learn more of the truth about the aliens and why they’re here. They’re colonial powers pilfering our natural resources, and creating climate change in the process apparently, basically turning Earth into their own Third World and the majority of humans into livestock. It sort of seems to excuse the one-percenters by defining the aliens as being something beyond man, much more evil and not simply representative of the rich and ruling class in America. But really it’s instead putting the guilt on all Westerners in general for being those aliens in relation to the greater poor of the world. The aliens are us.
“What’s Wrong Baby?”
In the end, Nada wins by destroying the broadcast signal that is keeping people from seeing the truth and the aliens. But he’s killed, though he lives just long enough to give the aliens the finger. Not only would that be a really bad ass way to end the film on its own, we still get this quick montage of scenes where suddenly the aliens are revealed as such to the world. The last shot before the film fades to black and then credits is the best, as a woman discovers she’s having sex with one of the bug-eyed creeps. He doesn’t realize she knows, and asks the above question. How many movies end with an awesome gratuitous sex scene like this? I don’t think there are any others.
This weekend fittingly saw the theatrical release of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which Zizek gives an analysis of this “forgotten masterpiece of the Hollywood left.” Here’s a clip of that scene to help you appreciate the movie and the above scenes even more: