Home Cyberpunk You’ve Gotta See They Live – Essential Cyberpunk Cinema

You’ve Gotta See They Live – Essential Cyberpunk Cinema

by Chad Sanders
They Live

If you’re a cyberpunk looking to kick ass and chew bubble gum, They Live is the movie that’s all out of bubble gum. 

A minor hit when it arrived in cinemas in 1988, They Live has grown to become one of the craziest and beloved cult classics from cinema legend John Carpenter.

The concept is unique, bold and downright insane. A working-class drifter teams up with construction workers and street preachers to take on aliens that have treated earth like its own third-world exploit. How do they get away with it? Television stations transmit signals directly into the human brain. It puts them into a sleep-like state so that the populace is unable to see the world for what it really is.

The film tackles heavy topics like consumerism, Reagan-era politics and the ruling class through a lens of 80s action and high concept sci-fi. They Live is definitely a fun and unique cyberpunk movie that you’ve gotta see.

John Carpenter's They Live
John Carpenter's They Live

Sunglasses Show the Real World in They Live

There are some movies that just have the hipness factor built into their DNA. Back to The Future has the Delorean. Ghostbusters has the proton packs. John Wick has Keanu Reeves being Keanu Reeves. But They Live is a bit more special because the coolest factor is simple and universal; those damn Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Well, they were knock-off Ray-Bans, but close enough.

Nada (played masterfully by professional wrestler Roddy Piper) stumbles upon a box of sunglasses. He hides the box, grabs a set for himself and starts strutting around downtown LA. That’s when his eyes are open to the darker truth.

Piper sees subliminal messaging hidden in all advertisements, magazines and pretty much anything with words on it. Advertisements for a new computer say to “obey.” Ads for Caribbean cruises order you to “marry and reproduce.” Dollar bills hit the nail on the head by proclaiming “this is your god.” On top of this, Piper sees alien creatures disguised as the human elite. These visions set Piper on a rampage to set humanity free. It’s a hell of an allegory.

They Live  has the Best Fight Scene Ever

Name any showdown; this one’s better.

After Piper’s rampage, the media is portraying him as a homicidal maniac, and his frenemy, Frank (played by legendary character actor Keith David), tracks him down, tosses him some cash and tells him to leave town. Piper tells him to put on the glasses, and Frank says “nope.” They just disagree, and tensions are already high. When these two working class guys can’t agree, they settle it one way: they fight.

What ensues is one of the most insane brawls in cinema history. It’s a combination of dirty street moves, professional wrestling and ballet. What was originally supposed to be twenty seconds turned into a fight that lasts over five minutes. Watching it feels like fifteen.

You feel every punch, kick and grab. There is so much drama. The fight scene builds, peaks, slows down to catches its breath, and then keeps going. David is great with the fake outs that catch Piper off guard, but Piper never lets up. At one point, Piper goes for a cheap shot to the groin that David blocks. He reminds Piper not to play that way when he continually knees him in his groin over and over again. Due to his tenacity, Piper gets David to wear the glasses and see the truth, but man did they just kick the crap out of each other.

And yes, this sounds familiar because it was recreated for South Park.

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Leading Man “Rowdy” Roddy Piper

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper is named that for a reason, and it’s just not to sell t-shirts at Wrestlemania.

The man is no stranger to acting, but They Live is his first leading role. His performance is captivating and exciting. Early in the movie, you actually see his calm and polite demeanor. The dude is actually acting, and not bad. 

"Rowdy" Roddy Piper in They Live
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper in They Live

We’re used to Dwayne Johnson being Mr. Movie Star now, but wrestlers in movies use to be cheap cash-grabs and wooden performances. (Cough Cough! Suburban Commando! Cough Cough!). This isn’t the case for Roddy Piper. The guy has a bit of range, and Carpenter knew how to get the nice guy performance before he got rowdy.

After he stumbles upon the truth, he’s through the door and ready to rock. It goes from 0 to insane pretty fast.

Sometimes, the movie is like a video game where the objective is to shoot as many aliens as you can. It makes sense that years later when Duke Nukem politely stole one of Piper’s most iconic lines: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I am all out of bubble gum”.

They Live  is secretly John Carpenter’s Best Movie

By this point in cinema history, John Carpenter has gone down as one of the greats in sci-fi and horror. He’s got a style that is engaging. The types of movies he chose were always captivating. Oftentimes, they were commentaries out of his own psyche. They Live was no different.

It’s a popular opinion now,  but at the time Carpenter was screaming into the void. In the 1980s, the rich got richer and the rest was distracted by the mammoth of cable television. Greed was the driving force.

They Live is one of his best works. The concept came from the short story “Eight O’clock in The Morning” by Ray Nelson, but was also influenced by a lot of creative factors. Being that the script was such an amalgamation, Carpenter is credited under the name Frank Armitage, in homage to H.P. Lovecraft.

What’s strange is that They Live is like the hip secret of his filmography. It’s kind of like how Led Zeppelin’s We’re Gonna Groove is only on live recording and oddity collections. You’ve gotta get turned on to it by someone else.

They Live doesn’t have the sleek action and impact of Escape from New York. It doesn’t have the nostalgic fun of Big Trouble in Little China. It doesn’t have the “Oh my God I can’t watch but I have to” factor of The Thing. They Live is its own beast.

Sure, it’s a high concept which may turn off some viewers. But, who cares? They Live is a damn unicorn waiting to be ridden.

It’s dark yet fun. Deep, yet entertaining. They Live is one of the most insane cyberpunk movies you’ve gotta see.

We know cyberpunk movies, so let us tell you what you’re missing. What’s timeless? What didn’t age so well? Share this article, and we’ll make the case for They Live.

Did we miss something here? Was there an unforgettable scene or classic one-liner that just shouldn’t be left out? What are your favorite parts of this movie? Leave us a comment below, and we’ll try to update the article with your suggestions!

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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