It’s alien invasion John Carpenter style in this satirical '80s actioner.
In John Carpenter’s They Live our homeless hero utters the immortal line: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubblegum." In true B-picture style, he’s played by a professional wrestler – 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper. Whilst hardly the most nuanced of actors, Piper brings to the role a sensational mullet and, as Alan Partridge would say, "a degree from the university of life", alongside the all important brick-shithouse physique.
Piper stars as the appropriately named John Nada who arrives in Los Angeles as the film begins, finding work as a labourer and a semblance of shelter in a rough sleepers’ camp. This ordinary guy soon happens upon an extraordinary lie: that extraterrestrials have been living amongst us, controlling the populace by disguising themselves as members of the elite. The truth appears to him (in black and white) when he dons a pair of 'magical' sunglasses, developed by a gang of underground activists – tagged by the compromised authorities as terrorists.
The glasses reveal that unseen messages exist all around the city, masquerading as advertising and journalism, commanding the ignorant masses to 'OBEY', 'CONSUME' and 'STAY ASLEEP'. Dollar bills it turns out bear the clandestine message, 'THIS IS YOUR GOD'. Furthermore, when Nada is approached by a businessman at a newsstand he is astonished when the glasses reveal him as an alien, and a visit to an upmarket store reveals dozens more of these otherworldly foes.
Not one to tolerate such surprising nonsense, Nada immediately reinvents himself as an action man. He takes to it with surprising zeal and this man of few words is soon a man of mighty quips. During what seems like one of the longest brawls in screen history he orders his friend Frank (Keith David) to, "Put on these glasses, or start eating that trash can." The men scrap for many minutes before Nada manages to force the transformative specs onto Frank’s face.
Carpenter rather fabulously cast Roddy Piper after meeting him at WrestleMania III. He describes Piper as someone who "seems to have lived", which turns out to be putting it mildly. In the feature which accompanies the DVD release of They Live Piper describes nonchalantly how he’s been electrocuted, stabbed three times, involved in a plane crash as well as multiple car crashes and he even has personal experience of homelessness.
Released elsewhere in Europe as Invasion Los Angeles, They Live cost approximately four million dollars to make. It’s loosely based on the 1963 short story 'Eight O’Clock in the Morning' by Ray Nelson which begins when a hypnotist orders a man (there George Nada) to 'Awake'. As he does he sees that aliens (the Fascinators) are seated amongst the crowd.
Carpenter’s adaptation, with its rich alien bastards and macho but earnest bums, doesn’t exactly constitute subtle social commentary but it’s nevertheless effective. The fact that They Live clobbers you round the head with its message is part of its mad charm. Like John Nada it’s terrifically big-hearted but a bit trigger happy. It (literally) spells everything out in capital letters and punctuates itself with explosions.
The outrageously enjoyable They Live turns those on the outside looking in into heroes and the elite into their alien antagonists. There’s plenty of fast quippin’ and ass kickin’ but look beneath the surface (no specs required) and it’s a sincere satire which just keeps on getting more relevant.