They Live Chew Bubblegum
Nada (Roddy Piper) in They Live! (John Carpenter, Universal Pictures, 1988)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 01 Oct 2020

They Live – "I have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass…"

Edit Line Pop culture
Blake Howard

Australian film critic and award-winning podcaster behind Michael Mann’s One Heat Minute

"Chew bubble gum and" what?

Nada (Roddy Piper) backs his big form into a building from the street to escape from a little ruckus that he'd caused outside. Police sirens reverberate on the glass building outside. Nada turns, his 80s blond mullet flicks around. He's dressed in a flannelette ("flano") shirt, tucked into dad jeans, strapped with various weapons, and nursing a shotgun. Nada is wearing sunglasses - not just to look cool, which he does) - they are unique. These shades reveal the invasion from an ugly alien force subliminally controlling humanity. Wearing these glasses Nada can fight through the bombardment of messages to "Stay Asleep", "No Imagination", "Submit to Authority" and hopefully help the population to WAKE UP. When he casts his eyes throughout the bank, he starts to see a swarm of these aliens congregating around money and the remaining human crowd tittering at the armed beefcake before them. Nada breaks the quiet commotion with an antagonistic one-liner of the tallest order. The line continues to rip, just as it did thirty years ago: "I have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum." When the disguised aliens' fire first, Nada returns with a volley of BUCK-SHOT, BUCK-SHOT, BUCK-SHOT. The aliens are overwhelmed and those who aren’t cut down, flee.

John Carpenter's They Live (1988) is a scathing satire about unrestrained capitalism. It sticks a big middle finger up to Gordon Gecko's valorised [Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) antihero] yuppie class in America. Great Bostonian film critic Sean Burns put it best when he said: "I'm still not exactly sure how Carpenter convinced a major studio to bankroll such an angry, anti-capitalist screed but I'm guessing that none of the suits paid much mind to the social satire being smuggled into a low-budget action movie in which a popular wrestler fights aliens." Carpenter adapted and expanded a Ray Nelson short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" initially published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 1963. Bill Wray adapted that into a comic called "Nada" published in the Alien Encounters comics anthology in April 1986.

WWF (now WWE) wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper plays Nada, a down-on-his-luck out of towner turned construction worker who stumbles into a conspiracy that aliens have infiltrated society to enslave humanity. A small resistance shares unique sunglasses that reveal beneath the facade. Carpenter ignored Piper's lack of acting experience because he wanted a star committed to delivering action within the constraints of a small budget and during the limited eight-week shoot. The film features an incredibly memorable scene where Keith David and Piper get into an equally ludicrous and magnetic epic five-and-a-half-minute alley brouhaha. Nada means "nothing" - and yet - Piper's unpolished performance makes him the essential, relatable everyman. He emerges from the displaced people of Los Angeles and ascends to the selfless hero's heights. American maestro Martin Scorsese called They Live "lyrical and tough" and "one of best films of a fine American director."

The chew bubblegum line is the perfect pop culture artefact, insinuating itself into the meme sphere and famously the Duke Nukem videogames, as well as homages in Dazed and Confused and The IT Crowd.

Blake Howard

This essay was written for Edit Line

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