Cheap Sunglasses: Roddy Piper Fights the Aliens in John Carpenter’s They Live

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John Nada (Roddy Piper) has finally seen the truth behind the lies.
John Nada (Roddy Piper) has finally seen the truth behind the lies.

‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was arguably one of wrestling’s first true major superstars in the late 1980s. When the Canadian fought Hulk Hogan at the then-WWF’s initial Wrestlemania, his popularity almost rivaled that of the blond, mustache-wearing ‘Hulkster.’ These two men were also pioneers in terms of turning their fame in the ring into carving out a niche for themselves in Hollywood. Hulk Hogan managed to land a part in Rocky III and later got his own television series, Thunder In Paradise. Roddy Piper unfortunately died of a heart attack at age 61 last month. Therefore it’s time to pay tribute to and remember him with arguably his greatest role – that of the leading man in John Carpenter’s They Live.

John Nada (Roddy Piper) is an out-of-luck drifter who tries to make a living as a construction worker. When he finds a job in Los Angeles, he becomes friends with a colleague, Frank Armitage (Keith David), who takes him to a shantytown. There, Nada notices strange things happening around the church. The local preacher calls for people to wake up, while there is constant television interference warning about the powers that be. When the slum is attacked and bulldozed by the police at night, Nada flees with a box taken from the church. Inside, he finds sunglasses with unique properties. The goggles reveal the whole shocking truth about the world in black-and-white. Many of the wealthiest people are actually humanoid aliens with skull-like faces, and the media and advertisements continually spread subliminal totalitarian messages to obey and conform to the system.

As soon as Nada confronts one of the extraterrestrials, she informs the others about his knowledge of the situation with her wristwatch. After killing several aliens during a shooting spree in a nearby bank, John manages to escape and takes Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), the assistant director of Channel 54, hostage. At her home, he tries to convince her of the truth, but she doesn’t believe him, knocking him through a window. Now on the run, Nada saves the other sunglasses from destruction by entering a garbage truck and forces a pair of them on Frank after a long back-alley fistfight. At a cheap hotel, the two run into another activist who takes them to a résistance meeting. They learn that the aliens consider Earth to be their ‘Third World’ of sorts, depleting it of its resources before moving on to other similar worlds, and that they use a subliminal signal broadcasted into people’s brains to camouflage themselves. Can Nada and Frank destroy the source of the signal to free mankind from their rule?

John Carpenter became famous with horror and science-fiction movies done on a shoestring budget, such as Halloween, Assault On Precinct 13, and The Thing, with the Canadian usually wearing several hats at once. He didn’t only sit in the director’s chair, but usually also penned the screenplay as well as writing and performing the synthesizer score. The same goes for They Live, and there are a lot of moments when it rivals or even trumps aforementioned classics. In fact, the helicopter sequence in the shantytown is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s arguably greatest film, Escape From New York. The backyard brawl sequence might look clumsy from today’s perspective, but in They Live, it serves as a vehicle to highlight Roddy Piper’s wrestling skills. His popularity was enormous at the time, and Keith David is no slouch as a sparring partner, either, having recently participated in the Expendables trilogy.

It’s easy to put They Live down as merely a cheesy B-movie, but that wouldn’t do John Carpenter’s work justice at all. There’s so much more going on beneath the surface. You can obviously read it as a reckoning with the Ronald Reagan era that was already in its final throes when the film saw the light of day. During the 1980s, the ‘greed is good’ mantra criticized in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was established, while actual (physical) labor was devalued and depreciated, as happens to Nada, Frank, and their fellow residents in the shantytown in They Live. The majority of the humans in the film are but livestock; they serve a purpose. Maybe John Carpenter draws from James Cameron’s original The Terminator that came out four years earlier in this instance. In any way, it can be regarded as a sort of prototype for The Matrix when it comes to humans being milked by an apparently stronger species.

They Live is, however, not the only work from that year to regard the predominant conditions with paranoia. The album Operation: Mindcrime by progressive metal outfit Queensrÿche also examines what they believe to be a corrupt, hypocritical, and economically unequal society. The drug addict Nikki is seduced into joining a secret underground organization run by the mysterious Dr. X that claims to be devoted to revolution. There are further parallels between They Live and the computer game Zak McKracken & The Alien Mindbenders, only that the legendary point-and-click adventure by Lucasfilm tackles some of the same issues from a more comedic perspective. A tabloid reporter must uncover an extraterrestrial conspiracy with the help of three female archeologists, with two of them having remodeled an old Volkswagen bus to fly to Mars. Yet the aliens in the game and their Elvis-loving ruler don’t use television to manipulate their subjects; they addle their brains through the telephone wire.

Nonetheless, They Live also offers some striking parallels to the world of today. It’s hard not to think of the more recent political and economic developments when watching the movie – and the outgrowth of capitalism thanks to globalization, investment banking, and hedge funds; the gap between the rich and the poor widening; technological products with ever-shortening lifecycles so that you have to renew your equipment every full moon; people from numerous warzones all over the world fleeing to ‘Western’ countries and ending up in similar shantytowns as Nada. It’s all there in They Live, which basically reflects on ‘Reaganomics,’ or the contemporary neoliberal capitalism and ultra-consumerism in its infant stages. Remember, ‘Greed is good’ is the mantra of Gordon Gekko, the cutthroat stockbroker from Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, and both directors seem to be men of vision. Each wants to show us the negative consequences of unleashing such a system onto the population.

It’s only fitting that Roddy Piper’s protagonist is named Nada – whether John, as in They Live, or George, as in the 1960s science-fiction short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson the film is based on. In Spanish, the word means as much as ‘nothing,’ ‘zippo,’ or ‘zilch,’ and at the beginning of the story Nada is only a cipher, indeed. He is only a small cog in the corporate wheel, one out of the many that keep the exploitative machine humming on all cylinders. It’s certainly debatable, however, whether he turns into an unlikely hero or he remains but a victim when all is said and done. In this regard, he is one and the same as another John Carpenter swashbuckler, the one-eyed Snake Plissken, who ultimately returns the modern world to the Stone Age by launching a superweapon that destroys all electronic devices at the end of Escape From L.A. The Canadian filmmaker certainly loves to draw dire pictures, perhaps as a sort of “Distant Early Warning,” to quote progressive rockers Rush.

A number of critics may argue that They Live isn’t John Carpenter’s best work, overall, and there is some merit to that estimation. The movie isn’t without excrescences. From a contemporary standpoint, for instance, the dialog can make you cringe occasionally. They Live really shows its age during those bits, since there are numerous generic 1980s action one-liners. It’s easy to overlook the film’s warts, though, because it’s still relevant today. Just as we can still learn some lessons from classic science-fiction, as outdated as it may seem at times, John Carpenter’s movie contains more than enough moments that make you pause and think carefully about the world we live in. If you would like to remember ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper in his full glory, you may want to tune in to his world-title bout against Hulk Hogan at the main event of the first-ever Wrestlemania. They Live might be the better alternative, however, as the Canadian legend also demonstrates his big-screen acting chops in the film.