2/6/08

How Roddy Piper and his Tight Jeans Saved the World From Yuppie Scum Aliens


From the moment we see him stroll into frame, his jeans fitting snugly, his blond streaked mullet flowing in the breeze; we instantly fall in love with part time actor/full time pro wrestler, Roddy Piper as the hero named Nada in 1988's They Live.

Based on the short story, Eight o Clock in the Morning, director, John Carpenter took and ran with the germ of this tale of an everyman who has to save the world from an alien invasion, into a cuckoo political fable of Reaganomics heavily seasoned with as much macho bravado and bad one liners as was humanly possible, and by default whipped up something of a camp classic.

Actually, They Live starts off pretty damn good. It's all atmosphere as Nada, a down on his luck guy, finds his way to L.A. looking for some honest work, and ends up living in a tent city with some other folks who are all victims of the rotten economic times brought on by that failed movie star in the White House. These people spend their days working in menial jobs, and their nights camped around discarded television sets (that inexplicably have cable hook ups) watching shows that celebrate how the other half lives.

When he's not shirtless and sweating and looking damn hot, Nada is noticing that something peculiar is afoot. Like the strange interruptions in programing (stations are being hacked and an announcer appears warning the audiences that they are, even now, under attack) that cause a blind preacher to mimic what is being said on the television, or the odd comings and goings at a local church.

Eventually, Nada charms a local youth into giving him his binoculars so he can spy on the church from a distance, and he notices folks coming and going at all hours.

Before he can really investigate, the tent city is set upon by a thug-like cadre of police officers who arrest, beat or just drive the squatters away. It is during this disturbance that Nada stumbles upon a pair of funky sunglasses...and that's when the fun starts.

After beating a hasty retreat from the demolished tent city, Nada strolls the streets of L.A. and decides to try on the sunglasses. When he sports the Foster Grant knock-offs, suddenly the world around him goes from living color, to black and white - what's more, signage is significantly changed. Where a billboard once read, "Come to The Caribbean" it now states starkly, in plain black letters, "Marry and Reproduce". More signs say similar things like, "Sleep", "Obey", "Don't Question Authority". Upon glancing at a dollar bill, Nada now reads, "This Is Your God".

If all this is not enough to send a fellow into a state of panic, the sunglasses also reveal that many of the more successful residents of L.A. are actually zombified monstrosities of some sort. And most of them have these nifty little two-way radio devices built into their watches, which allows them to report suspicious activity to ... well, at this point we don't know exactly what they are, and who they might be reporting to.

As it turns out, we discover that the creatures are actually space aliens who have invaded our planet long ago and have taken over by controlling us economically as opposed to the use of laser beams and killer flying saucers - it's really a brilliant idea. The Yuppie Scum are from another planet, and they've acquired Earth via a non-hostile take over bid.

After the discovery of all of this, and just when They Live should really take off as a major indictment of The Reagan Era, the movie just flies off the tracks and becomes a testosterone fueled roller coaster of an action film.

In spite of this turn, my favorite scene comes when Nada, armed to the teeth with all kind of firearms strolls into a bank, wearing the tell-all-specs and shouts the immortal line, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum".

That is such a stupid turn of phrase, and yet it's fucking brilliant - word is that Piper improvised it - so make of that what you will.

Now that the one liner bottle is open, they keep coming fast and furious. Here are a few other priceless bits:

"Life's a bitch, and she's back in heat again."
"The Golden Rule, he who has the gold, makes the rules."

"You look like you fell in the cheese-dip back in 1957"

"The world needs a wake up call, and we are gonna' phone it it."

"I got news for 'em. There's gonna be hell to pay. 'Cause I ain't Daddy's little boy no more. "

Trust me, they just keep getting worse.

Anyway, now that our hero knows the deal, he has to convince someone, anyone, about what is going on. First he kidnaps a woman named Holly (Meg Foster) and tells her. But Holly don't take no shit from no tight jean wearing drifter - so she pushes Nada out her living room window (really!) and after he falls, god knows how many feet down, he brushes him self off and walks away. And he tries again.

This time he tries to tell fellow drifter Frank (Keith David). Frank does not want to know either, but this time, there ain't no window to be pushed out of, so for the next six minutes, the most ridiculous fight scene ever put to film occurs.

In this corner, weighing in at 280 pounds from Denver, it's conspiracy theorist, Nada. His opponent, weighing in at 310 pounds and hailing from Michigan, it's the brown bomber, Frank!

Now we get to watch these two bulls beat each other to a pulp, all, presumably, because one wants the other to wear the damn glasses, and the other wants no part of it. Frankly, I think this is just the two of them working off some sexual energy, but hey that's just my take on things.

Finally, the fight over, Frank puts on the glasses and sees the light.

Next up the boys take a room at a dive motel on skid row, upon entering the room, Nada turns to Frank and utters another of those great one-liners (though this one seems rather telling), "Ain't love grand?" he smirks to his bruised comrade. Yes, to be sure, the relationship between Nada and Frank is filled with homoerotic overtones.

Anyway, now it's time for the boys to play cowboy, and play they do. Eventually they meet up with a group of freedom fighters, infiltrate the alien's underground headquarters(and in one of the film's brightest spots discover that the aliens have been helped along by wealthy humans who have a vested interest in the alien's undertakings), and shoot a lot of creatures.

Might makes right, and in the end, Nada exposes the world to the nefarious plans of the space yuppies by blowing up their satellite feed, which in turn exposes all alien's passing for human (note the scene towards the end where we see an alien duo debating the violence in film and mentioning George Romero and John Carpenter specifically).

They Live is a fun little movie, that coulda' been a contender, were it not for the dorky turn it takes. Still though, it is worth it for Roddy's bare chest, his tight jeans, and watching him struggle to show an emotion other than anger.

2 comments:

The Divine Ms. Jimmi said...

Flawed as it was, it was a really good little flick with a very subversive message that applies even now more today than it did now.

Pax Romano said...

DMJ,

No doubt! In spite of the "shoot-em-up" mentality that took over half way through, Carpenter really tried to get a message across...one that is still very true to this day and age.