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From Under a Rock: They Live

August 13, 2015 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
They Live Roddy Piper
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From Under a Rock: They Live  

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There’s a first time for everything in a person’s life: your first time finishing a pint of ice cream on your own, for instance. Or the first time you finish a quart of ice cream on your own. Or perhaps your first time finishing a gallon of ice cream on your own (and so on).

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). This column is a companion piece to my podcast of the same premise (although formatted differently, and injected with much more levity), which you can check out here.

Last week I chose to accept Aaron’s mission to see the first Mission: Impossible, and was somewhat underwhelmed. This week, I take Aaron out from under the proverbial rock by introducing him to this John Carpenter 1988 cult classic “Rowdy” Roddy Piper vehicle.

They Live

Michael Ornelas: Obviously this choice was due to the relevant timing, and a way for me to personally mourn the loss of an industry legend, but there’s actually enough to this movie to warrant me picking it for Aaron to see anyways. It’s fun (in a weird way in that it sometimes doesn’t take itself seriously, but then conversely will take itself too seriously. What were your first impressions?

Aaron Hubbard: This of course is coming off of the tragic passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, professional wrestling legend and B-Movie action star. I’ve seen Hot Rod perform in the ring and on the microphone plenty of times, but this is my first taste of his acting. The film was written and directed by John Carpenter and also stars Keith David, who I know mostly for his voice work in Disney’s Gargoyles.

As for my impressions of the film, I have to say it succeeded in the most important thing a movie can do for me; keeping me invested the whole time. It wasn’t always good, but it was always compelling.

Michael: It’s interesting you say that, because the pacing has always felt a little on the slow side for me. Even Nada’s walking pace is excruciating throughout the duration of the film. But just when it starts to drag, something big happens to snap you out of it: he finds the sunglasses and learns the truth, he delivers the worst/best one-liner of all time before shooting up a bank, he has that classic alley fight, and so forth. The major plot points all make a difference in progressing things forward, and are paced well…but sometimes getting from one to the other fizzles out for me.

Aaron: I can see how that would be bothersome on repeated viewings, but as somebody who literally knew nothing about the actual plot of the movie, I was able to absorb the setting and figure out the mystery. At first I thought this would be an analysis about how poor people still carve out an existence – “They Live”. Then aliens showed up and things got weird.

Michael: I remember having a similar appreciation for the pacing on my first viewing. But having seen it three or four times now, it feels a little on the slow side when you know what’s coming (and to be fair, the entire point of this column is to get that fresh, first-time perspective). When the aliens showed up though, things really got a lot more fun because it’s only at that moment when you realize that Carpenter is taking you to a new world, essentially. And while I wouldn’t really classify the film as an “alien movie”…all the tropes are pretty much there when you look back on it – the panic/confusion of those who learn of their existence, the underground militants pulling together to fight them off, high-tech gadgets, and a body count (although that doesn’t come until later).

Aaron: Right. And I really appreciated that nothing was rushed. I didn’t know who the villain was or the purpose of the sunglasses until I was supposed to.

Michael: And for all you knew, Nada himself could have been the villain with how quickly he jumps to violence as a solution.

Aaron: I actually hadn’t considered that possibility but yeah, that’s definitely true. Piper’s character was actually crazier than his wrestling persona, which is saying something.

Michael: Oh yeah?

Half Black Piper

Aaron: And yet only Hogan gets accused of racism.

Michael: Piper can say what he wants: he’s half black!


Granted, if I saw what Nada was seeing, I would probably lose my mind too. I don’t know if I would spout off as many inane one-liners. I think I actually enjoyed him more when he wasn’t talking. Which I never thought I would say about Piper.

Michael: Which actually leads me to my next point: the dialogue for the characters was actually pretty bad, and I think that highlights how good the performances really were. Piper had a magnetism about his character that was completely different than the charisma exhibited by his wrestling persona. Even Keith David turned in a memorable performance, and his dialogue wasn’t much better.

Aaron: Definitely. I feel like all of the effort from Carpenter went to all of the political-economic rhetoric and not to writing believable characters. The film explores some interesting ideas (and still feels relevant almost thirty years later) but also feels like it doesn’t go far enough. Which is probably why it’s a cult classic instead of just a classic.

Michael: Totally valid. As is, the film feels like a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the “1%” as we’ve come to know them these days, and almost bails when it provided with the chance to go deeper. I think that fault comes from the decision to lump all the aliens into one mind inhabiting several bodies instead of each of them getting their own voice/viewpoint across and distinguishing themselves from one another (or even having a “main” alien who could have even hit me in the face with exposition/motivation, and I’d have been alright with it). If you want to watch something that diversifies its villains and strengthens them immensely in the process, go watch the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot series.

But there is one thing about this movie that is fully in the category of “classic” – the alley fight. Did you love it or what?

Aaron: I don’t think any fan of movie fighting could possibly not love this. It’s brutal, it’s gritty, it’s got wrestling moves and dirty tactics, and it doesn’t end when you think it will. All good things.

But what I love most is that we have two good guys who have a justified reason for fighting each other.

Michael: Well…to be fair, Frank simply comes across as though he simply doesn’t want to put on some sunglasses, and that’s a fairly weak motive.

Aaron: I wouldn’t trust somebody who I thought was a cold-blooded murderer either. And really, it kind of encapsulates the idea that some people will do anything to stay blissfully unaware.

Compared to the weak logic behind say… Thor and Iron Man throwing down in The Avengers this is much better. It may be my favorite hero vs. hero fight ever.

Michael: That’s pretty high praise. So with said praise, how would you rate this movie?

Aaron: I’m torn. It’s objectively riddled with some bad issues, but I really enjoyed it. I don’t think I will ever watch it again though (except the alley fight), and with that in mind, I will give this a


Michael: Understandable, and not too far off from my own. I’m a huge fan of camp, and some of the one liners in this movie, while goofy and tonally way off-base, really added to the movie for me. There’s the obvious “…and I’m all out of bubblegum” line, but even “You look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957!” How does someone come up with that?! This is also the first time I saw a more serious, reserved side of the Hot Rod, and his performance alone bumps this movie up a grade from where you have it. I’m going with a


Aaron: It probably says something about Piper that this is his “serious” side for you. To me, it’s typical Piper: no matter how ridiculous he gets, you believe it because of his energy, his passion. The wild look in his eyes that says he is crazy…it’s for real. Truly one of a kind.

Michael: Well I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. What do you have for me for next week?

Aaron: Perhaps you heard about Fox’s fantastic fiasco at the box office this week?

Michael: Please Aaron…you don’t have to do this. Not this way!

Aaron: Of course not. Even I am not that cruel. No, let’s look at another Marvel superhero Fox nearly ruined forever: Daredevil!

Daredevil 2003

Michael: You’re the kind of guy who speeds up when he sees someone standing by a puddle, aren’t you?

Aaron: Oh relax. I’m talking about the Netflix series.

Netflix Daredevil

Michael: Oh. I can do that! I’ve actually heard really good things about this. I’ve heard that Kingpin is characterized amazingly well! I’m excited to see it.

Aaron: Well, you’ll be seeing the first three episodes. I feel confident you’ll want to finish it on your own time by then.


They Live FUAR

On this week’s edition of the “From Under A Rock” podcast, Michael selects “They Live” for the fellas, in a rare coinciding of the podcast and column versions of FUAR!

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And if you want to read Aaron’s thoughts on movies, professional wrestling and comic books, check out The Shelf is Half Full.

The final score: review Good
The 411
They Live is a movie that doesn't aim especially high. But for what it is, it's a fun and interesting thriller that is worth seeing. It has also aged surprisingly well, with political and economic criticisms that are still culturally relevant today. The alley fight between Keith David and Roddy Piper is the stuff of legend, and Piper is a magnetic personality that brings his one-of-a-kind energy to the film. It definitely deserves its status as a cult classic, and if that's in your wheelhouse, we definitely recommend it.