This is maybe my favorite movie of all time.
It will never make an AFI 100 Greatest… list, nor will you ever see it on American Movie Classics, but They Live! is, if nothing else, an entertaining film and why the hell else would you want to see a movie titled “They Live!” unless you wanted to be entertained?
I, however, posit the notion that They Live! is far more than mere entertainment. It is masterful science fiction storytelling. Like all great science fiction, They Live! contains a healthy dose of social commentary and, like a interesting social commentary, They Live! looks at society through a satirical eye. Of course, truly funny satire never takes itself seriously, and John Carpenter’s genius may lie in his ability to never ever take himself seriously. They Live! knows it is as silly as it is even when it is busy making barbed attacks on Reaganomics, Yuppies and the homogenization of media.
Professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays against type by loving America, being a good guy and not wearing a kilt as he portrays Nada, an itinerant drifter, a victim of the culture of corporate downsizing. At a construction site, Rowdy Roddy befriends Keith David who takes him to a shanty town where crazy homeless guy Buck Flowers thrusts a pair of sunglasses on him. When Piper puts them on, he discovers a nefarious plot by aliens who have invaded the Earth, inhabiting the bodies of Yuppies and instituting a mass media campaign to suppress mankind with subliminal messages in radio, TV and print. (Watch They Live!) Piper and Keith raise an army of transients with hopes of pirating a broadcasting station and getting the message out.
However, before an army can be raised, a broadcast station pirated and a message gotten out, Piper must convince Keith David to put on the sunglasses and see the truth for himself. This can only be accomplished with a bareknuckle back alley brawl that resembles a classic WWF Battle Royale on ephedrine. The ensuing melee lasts twenty-five-minutes and involves every implement of destruction available, from the standard two-by-four and lead pipe to cinderblocks, garbage cans and car doors. While many fight sequences can lay claim to the title (top contenders: Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl and John Wayne’s The Quiet Man), but Roddy Piper and Keith David’s fistfest is truly the greatest fight sequence in film.
And this happens about thirty minutes into the film.
John Carpenter is generally slagged by film critics (two very famous whom he takes a hilarious swipe at in They Live!), but even among fans They Live! is too often dismissed or forgotten. Perhaps we should all put on the special sunglasses and see the truth.