Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
What happened to John Carpenter?
They Live no doubt remains a punchline for many movie geeks simply because former pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is its star. If memory serves, Piper’s WWF persona was an angry Scotsman in a kilt, and compared to other pro rasslin’ superstars who have made the jump to the big screen … well, he’s done about par for the course. Jesse “The Body” Ventura at least popped up in two Schwarzenegger movies and went on to be governor of Minnesota (making Predator and The Running Man both movies that feature two future state governors), and after a few Thunder In Paradise movies, Hulk Hogan returned to pro wrestling mercifully and permanently.
They Live remains Piper’s biggest leading role, though the IMDb does list Code Black as his latest project, in which he’ll act alongside Erik Estada under the guidance of William Shatner, who has actually directed a few other projects since Star Trek V.
But not only is Piper pretty good in They Live, but They Live is also a pretty damn good movie, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of pretty damn good (and imaginative) movie that John Carpenter used to crank out with ease, and which he has somehow forgotten how to make.
First, let’s address They Live’s surprising goodness upon a second viewing, and the first time I had watched it since I caught it late at night on HBO as a kid – the perfect circumstances for me to have constructed an overblown and overly forgiving opinion of the movie. After all, the flick does feature:
1. A lot of creepy-looking aliens.
2. Guys getting shot.
3. The longest fistfight in movie history (at the time).
4. Tits (a brief tit shot caps the movie).
Let me further add that tit shots in movies you caught as a kid were like the Holy fucking Grail. I can’t think of how many times I checked the TV guide to find out when Irreconcilable Differences was coming on so I could catch the brief boob shot in that one.
But in any event, They Live holds up, even for this older and slightly more jaded geek. I don’t know much about Eight O’Clock in the Morning, the short story it’s based on, but I can say that screenwriter “Frank Armitage” (Carpenter, I presume) put together a tight, fun and dread-inducing 90 minutes – that is also very strong satire. Hell, for me They Live is far better satire than Carpenter’s classic Escape from New York. I say this because, yes, in both movies, Carpenter uses the fantastic to achieve his dramatic ends, but in Escape From New York, he shows us a world we barely recognize; the world in They Live is precisely our own, and more important, Carpenter shows us a part of our world – the hardworking, largely homeless immigrant population of Los Angeles – that we would rather not see.
On to Roddy Piper’s performance. I like that Piper chose such an unglamorous role for his attempt at stardom. Dwayne Johnson ("The Rock") had a much easier time of it. He got to strut around half naked and flex his muscles and get his face CG’ed into a giant scorpion in The Mummy Returns. (No offense to The Rock, incidentally. His handlers are geniuses, because from The Rundown to Doom, his career choices have been stellar.)
But Piper, for his first big screen role, chooses to play a homeless rambler, a bum who wanders into town, gets shot down at the unemployment office, and winds up finagling his way into a construction gig and finding housing at a makeshift homeless shelter built in a vacant lot in southern Los Angeles.
Now, although Piper eventually does get to take his shirt off and run around shooting a gun and fight in the longest fistfight in movie history (an excuse to show off his pro wrestling skills with Carpenter stalwart Keith David), Piper spends most of the first reel of They Live in silence. He barely raises his voice. And he’s a loser, a bum.
Guys, in this movie, Piper falls into a very esteemed category of actors for me: his heart is in the right place. And even when he does too much “acting” with his face, or his delivery sounds stilted, he’s trying so damn hard to get this character right – and it shows. Many actors fall into the “heart in the right place” category from time to time, and not all of them are former pro wrestlers – some are accomplished actors who are simply out of their element.
For example, eminent British guy Jason Isaacs stumbled into “heart in the right place” territory when Ridley Scott cast him as the brave, flawed Captain Steele in Black Hawk Down. Isaacs – again, a British guy – got cast as a former offensive guard for the 1980 national champion Georgia bulldogs who went on to a career in the military as one of Army’s elite soldiers, the Rangers. (Again, Isaacs is many things, but an enormous redneck isn’t one of them.) But Isaacs pumped some iron, gained some weight and put on his best attempt at a southern redneck accent – and wound up looking and sounding like a complete goofball. He blusters his way through the movie, generally looking like a flummoxed Shakespearean. As a former southerner (I grew up in Tennessee, near the Georgia state line), and a self-proclaimed “expert” on the redneck accent – it ain’t the same animal as the antebellum southern drawl you hear in Gone with the Wind), I chortled at Isaac’s performance the first time I saw the movie.
But upon repeated viewings, I started to realize what a snob I was being. Who cares if he got the accent right or not? What matters is that Jason Isaacs, eminent British person, played this role – a role he could have looked down his nose at – with such reverence. It’s easy to laugh at Isaacs at the beginning of the movie, when Steele is stomping around the barracks, growling at his underlings; but watch him in the middle of the movie, when we get to see Steele, this tough-as-nails guy, categorically refuse an order to move his men a few blocks because they had already taken so much damage and he wouldn’t cause his men any more pain. Watch him choke back tears at the end of the movie, when Steele, humiliated because of his seeming “failure” commanding in the field, visits his wounded in the infirmary.
Isaacs approached the role of a huge redneck with reverence and respect. Piper chose an unglamorous role for his first big movie and did the same. One example of this respect he has for his role: when his character, on the run from aliens, stumbles into a bank holding two guns, he delivers a familiar, kick-ass line:
“I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
What I like about Piper’s delivery here is how he underplays it. Later when he has the world’s longest fistfight with Keith David, he shouts and jabs his finger just like he was taunting the Undertaker – but in the bank scene, when he’s toting two guns and about to start blowing away some alien scum, he takes this seminal badass line and just says it. He says it like he’s reading out of a phone book. I don’t know what Piper’s background is as an actor or a comedian – although his pro wrestling work provided him with both – but he makes an OK line very funny by completely underplaying it.
His heart is in the right place.
But besides Piper’s surprisingly OK performance, let’s not forget what a fun piece of science fiction this is. Carpenter isn’t a glamorous director – he never has been – but all of his strengths are on display here, including good pacing, decent acting, solid world-building, and, again, satire.
First, let look at the world-building afoot in They Live. Now, to be sure, this isn't a sweeping sci-fi epic like Minority Report, where every detail of this fantastic new world has been mapped down to the last inch. It takes place in the modern day. But what I admire about the world of They Live is how deftly Carpenter doles out the details of the sinister mind-control apparatus that lurks under the surface of our own world.
(In case you haven't seen the flick, Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter, finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal a sinister alien plot to control the planet. Every bit of media on earth, from TV to magazines, is shown to actually carry such Big Brotherly messages as OBEY, SUBMIT and NO IMAGINATION. Our very currency carries the message THIS IS YOUR GOD. Hee hee! Various rich assholes are revealed to be grotesque undercover aliens that look like Skeletor with frostbite and have pinballs for eyes. And wear bad wigs. Have I mentioned how funny this movie is?)
Watch the five or 10 minutes of They Live where Nada discovers the alien conspiracy. Watch this sequence, and you'll see how Carpenter's expert pacing asserts itself as it does in all of his classics — Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing and The Fog — and as it does not in his two most recent movies (and missteps), Escape from LA and Ghosts of Mars. Carpenter, in a series of long, wide shots and largely silent takes, gives Piper loads of screentime to make his discovery, and at no time does Carpenter's (usually welcome) music intrude upon the action — which is a wise move. Carpenter is a skilled composer, and his work with Alan Howarth in this movie is good … but it's not that good. Consider the Phillip Glass track that accompanies Truman Burbank's similar scene of discovery in Peter Weir's The Truman Show. A realization this huge needs perfect music to back it up. Lacking such music, Carpenter calls on Piper to simply react, and he does.
Toward the end of this sequence, we get another dose of Carpenter's pacing, satire and world-building. As said, Nada can see the true faces of the invading aliens when he wears the sunglasses, and in a convenience store, no doubt completely freaked out, he starts to ridicule an old lady who is actually one of the aliens:
"When I take these off, she looks normal, but when I put them on, she looks like shit!"
Piper delivers these lines with some of the throaty gusto we know from the ring, but the scene belongs to the old lady alien, who rasps into her two-way-radio wristwatch, "We've got one that can see!"
With this simple moment, Carpenter makes us laugh (a sweet old lady playing the role of arch-villain), cringe (we're actually afraid of her), and slap our foreheads at the vastness of the conspiracy. By showing us that every alien has instant and ready access to the rest of the alien network, Carpenter shows us how gigantic and entrenched that network is — in less than five seconds of screentime. That's world-building.
But as said before, Carpenter has lost his touch. In the six years before They Live, Carpenter’s filmography included Starman, Christine, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.
Big Trouble in Little China! Jesus, when we talk about this era in Carpenter's career, we’re basically talking about the Carpenter equivalent of the section of Shakespeare’s career when he wrote Hamlet, the Henry IV plays and Henry V! 1982-1986 marks Carpenter’s strongest stretch, and it doesn’t even include Halloween, his classic freshman flick! And even after 1986, Carpenter had some goodness in him. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, besides being haunting and bittersweet, is also one of the few movies where I really like Chevy Chase. Carpenter’s last really good movie is In The Mouth of Madness, which succeeds because of a madman’s reverence for writing and in spite of an overwrought ending.
After that, though, the slide into lameness begins.
I hereby open a dialogue with fellow CC2ker Jordan Albert, a fellow Carpenter enthusiast. I've discussed the simple fact that Carpenter has lost his touch, but I admit I have no idea why. Did he simply get old? Did he fucking forget how to make a movie?
Jordan has his own ideas, and I'd like to hear them. Stay tuned to CC2k for more details on the creative demise of John Carpenter.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.