Is it possible to make a bad movie—I mean, a really bad movie—and it still be a great movie? Well, sure. Just look at John Carpenter’s They Live. This whackadoodle monstrosity combines a silly premise, ridiculous acting, sub-par special effects even by 1988 standards, and a soundtrack consisting of a single, three-note bass line. All of this is supposed to carry a deep social statement about late-stage capitalism and the mind-altering nature of consumer culture. It’s barely an hour and a half long, but it feels like way more than that because the whole thing is paced so slowly, just to pad it out. That isn’t exactly surprising, since the story itself has barely enough material to fill out an Outer Limits episode, let along a feature-length film.
They Live is directed by John Carpenter, a Hollywood legend for such films as Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China. But he’s also known for being a real do-it-yourselfer, and in all of his movies, you can always tell that he’s cleverly figuring out how to make 100 minutes’ worth of movie with a budget meant for half that. In They Live, he uses every trick at his disposal—homemade soundtrack, repurposed props from other movies, no studio sets—but they come together so crudely that the movie’s reach far extends its grasp.
And yet I love it. And so does everybody else in the known universe. That is a fact. If you don’t, it’s probably because you haven’t put the sunglasses on yet. Anyway…
The story involves a drifter named John Nada (played by former professional wrestling superstar “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who lives out of his backpack and takes up residence in a homeless camp on the edge of Los Angeles while working as a day laborer. He finds a pair of sunglasses that when worn, show the world in black and white, and translates every surface or screen with written messaging on it into single-word commands. EAT. WORK. PROCREATE. OBEY. What’s worse, the glasses reveal that many people are ghoul-like aliens who are secretly running the planet by brainwashing humans into thinking that everything is just hunky dory. It isn’t Reaganomics, baby! It’s an alien plan to keep the sheeple occupied while they strip-mine the planet and move on.
Well, Rowdy’s having none of it, so after he commits a shooting spree in a nearby bank, he goes on the run and encounters a television producer to whom he tries to share the truth. She throws him out a window. Then he meets his old foreman, who’s been searching the city to give Rowdy his last paycheck. Rowdy tries to make him wear the glasses, and that results in a five-minute long street fight. Once that’s done, Rowdy and his much-bruised foreman join a kind of resistance movement but the cops show up and kill everybody, so it’s basically up to Rowdy to storm a local TV station being used by the aliens to transmit their brainwashing signal, destroy the signal emitter, and reveal the aliens to the world. We know he succeeds because the last shot of the movie is of a human and ghoul having sex and suddenly the woman is a little freaked out by the sight of the guy she’s with. And…scene.
So why do people love this movie so much? Does it really strike a chord with everybody who has arched a skeptical eyebrow at how a consumer economy work? Are we all, deep down, in the market for some weird conspiracy story to explain why we don’t have a more satisfying position in life than the one we occupy? Do we really think that monotonous bass line is really a triumph in minimalist soundtrack writing? Maybe it’s because it contains one of the most awesome hero lines of all time, right before Rowdy opens fire in that bank: “I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Personally, I think it’s got everything to do with that legendary fight scene between Rowdy Piper and his foreman, played by Keith David. Piper and David spent three whole weeks rehearsing it, which is pretty incredible when you realize that it only took eight weeks to shoot the entire film. The scene is considered by many to be one of the greatest fight scenes ever, even though it’s just two big jerks duking it out in a back alley with hardly any skill or technique. Just a lot of muscle, tough jaws, and a refusal to quit. (Most of the hits we see are real; they faked only shots to the head and groin.) It’s the kind of scene that starts off as a simple slugfest, then becomes a parody of itself, then turns around again and transcends itself. You start thinking that nobody who isn’t directing a martial arts movie films a fight this long just to showcase two guys beating the crap out of each other. It must stand for something, right?
Honestly, I don’t think it stands for much of anything other than Carpenter intended a thirty-second fight scene, saw what Piper had David cooked up, and loved it so much that he included the whole thing. Carpenter had been so disillusioned by his relatively big-budget experience on Big Trouble in Little China that he just wanted to go back to calling all of his own shots, even if meant doing a movie like They Live with scenes like that epic and ridiculous alley fight. Thank goodness he did. A world without that fight scene would be a lesser place. Out of bubblegum, indeed.