Obey! Consume! Buy Bubblegum! Revisiting They Live at 35

Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer

Back in July it was announced that 1988 Sci Fi action film They Live (also known as John Carpenter’s They Live) would be returning to theatres in celebration of its 35th anniversary. While the actual anniversary date is November 4, I just could not wait to dive back into this cult classic masterpiece.

So, with a subliminal SPOILER ALERT let’s retro review They Live in four blasts:

Blast #1 Rowdy Nada

Somebody get this man some bubblegum STAT!

They Live centers on a nameless, homeless drifter (credited as “Nada”) who discovers special sunglasses which reveals some upper-class humans are actually skull-faced aliens in disguise who have been manipulating humans through subliminal messaging. Nada was played by late wrestler/actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in easily his most iconic performance. This film is Piper’s show, and we are merely dancing to his tune. He is crafty, intelligent, witty and a physical powerhouse. His line “I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum” is easily one of the most badass movie quotes ever delivered. It is somewhat odd that Nada does go from inquisitive drifter to public alien slayer in about 60 seconds, but I guess those skull-faces wouldn’t have offed themselves. And the character is much more serious than the flirty and wisecracking Sam Hell which he played in Hell Comes to Frogtown released earlier at the start of 1988.

Piper is not the greatest actor, but one can tell he is fully committed to the role and pumps up every scene with his energetic presence. He is ably supported by the always solid Keith David who plays Frank Armitage, Nada’s pragmatic fellow construction worker and later freedom fighter. And veteran actress Meg “Those Eyes” Foster has a small but memorable role as Cable 54 employee Holly Thompson. There are other characters in minor roles, but they are pretty much there to keep the plot rolling along, and do not leave much of a lasting impression. They have nothing on Nada.

Blast #2 Formaldehyde Faces

What? What is it? Is there something in my teeth?

Let’s chat about the They Live aliens a bit. Their freakish skull-face designs are instant nightmare fuel and once you see them, they will live (pun definitely intended) in your memories forever. It’s been decades since I first watched the film, and I can tell you the design has stuck with me. While their nefarious methods are exposed throughout the course of the movie these extraterrestrials are mostly a mystery. We have no idea where they came from nor even what they are called. And there is not any long, expository-filled conversation with any of them nor is any alien leader character revealed. Writer/director and horror master John Carpenter was clearly more interested in presenting the aliens as allegories than delving deep into them and their motivations.

In previous Sci Fi films, we have had aliens invade with large spaceships (Earth vs the Flying Saucers), giant tripods (The War of the Worlds) or, and more subtlety, by replacing humans in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They Live also goes the subtle approach, and the fact that they are just living among humans and manipulating them is unique, chilling and most insidious. Great work by Carpenter and company.

Blast #3 Stop the Signal

Let’s hear it for the boys! Let’s give the boys a hand-ah-and-ee-and

They Live is a Sci Fi action film, but it is slightly stronger on the science fiction elements than on action set pieces. Now don’t get me wrong; Nada’s opening rampage is quite entertaining and the iconic six-minute brawl between our drifter protagonist and Frank is hilariously drawn out and only gets better the longer it goes on for. But the rest of the action is just kind of okay, with the final assault on the Cable 54 station to stop the signal seeing our dynamic duo repetitively blasting alien goons in corridor after corridor after corridor. It gets very old very fast, and it was kind of disappointing after what came before.

On the positive side, I did enjoy They Live’s twists and found them quite effective. It was so strange seeing George Buck Flower’s drifter character decked off in a suit as a collaborator. And I had actually forgotten that Meg Foster’s character Holly was a collaborator too, making her murder of Frank quite shocking and impactful. Pour one out for Frank and our self-sacrificing hero Nada too while you’re at it. But not for Holly. Alien-collaborating wench!

Blast #4 Welcome to Our Future

This seems about right

They Live was based on the 1963 short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson and the themes stemmed from Carpenter’s dissatisfaction with the economic policies of then-US President Ronald Reagan. But its themes of messaging and media control feels even more relevant today as almost of the media we consume is meant to influence us or sell us something. If we had Nada’s sunglasses we’d be seeing “obey,” “consume” and “conform” all over the place.

It is most impressive that a film starring a wrestler blasting away aliens disguised as innocuous looking humans could have such deep and timeless themes. And as a film lover, having both my wanton action and cerebral Sci Fi itches scratched in one movie is a wonderful feeling. It may be three and a half-decade old, but They Live will live on as one of the best Sci Fi films of any era.

Editor Jules’s Score: 8.5 out of 10

Are you a fan of They Live? What are your favourite scenes? And you can check out more classic Sci Fi awesomeness below:


Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.

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