What Does the Fight Scene in 'They Live' Really Mean?
What exactly was director John Carpenter trying to say with that epic, six-minute fight scene in They Live?
If you've seen Carpenter's 1988 sci-fi actioner They Live, then you know exactly the scene we're talking about. Nada (Roddy Piper) has found a pair of sunglasses that reveal the hidden messages planted in everything around us. OBEY. CONSUME. STAY ASLEEP. He can also see the horrific true faces of the creatures that have infiltrated society.
Nada wants to share this discovery with Frank (Keith David), but Frank refuses to even put the sunglasses on.
This is the set-up for one of the most iconic movie fight sequences ever. It's a gritty, six-minute ordeal with no soundtrack.
Rossatron examines the fight and its deeper meanings in a recent video, but before we dig in, let's enjoy this iconic scene in all its glory!
And now, take a look at Rossatron's video essay dissecting the scene.
Why does it need to be six minutes long?
From a practical standpoint, as Carpenter says, he had Roddy Piper in his film, so he decided to give him a big fight scene.
You don't waste Rowdy Roddy. If you have someone with that physicality, and fans are expecting a set piece playing to that person's strengths, give the audience what they want!
The video also points out that, story-wise, this is a fight between two friends. It needs to convey the narrative of two stubborn men refusing to back down, and it would likely be sloppy and emotional like this is. It's a moment that might signal a turning point in the characters' relationship and in Frank's emotional journey.
Having a six-minute fight scene might also simply be more memorable and land a bigger punch (yes) with the viewer. It's unique, and it's likely a moment you'll take away from your viewing.
But what about the message?
As the video points out, the fight scene is enjoyable to watch. It's shot well. The actors do a good job. But in the end, it's slightly empty of greater meaning.
It's a popcorn scene. It's a fun, action-packed fight sequence placed to serve the audience. It's violent and bloody and over-the-top. And Carpenter gives you an ample serving of it -- six whole minutes. Do you feel better after watching it? Did you really need that much?
Perhaps this scene is a nod to the film's overall message -- if you look at something hard enough, no matter how glossy or nice or enjoyable or entertaining it is, there might not be anything deeper there. This is just two guys punching each other for several minutes. And you just CONSUMED it.
The fight scene's length could also be attempting to illustrate what the process might actually be like to open a friend's eyes to issues in society, especially if they are living a happy, ignorant life. You might have to spend a long time "fighting" that friend before you finally get them to acknowledge a different viewpoint. And it might get messy.
Do you think there's a deeper meaning to this scene?
What are some of your favorite movie fight scenes? Let us know in the comments!
What's next? Get more advice for your own fight scenes
As David mentions in the video, fight scenes should still tell stories. That's why plot and character still matter, and it's also why many think Barry has better fights than Avengers. Ready to dig in? Here are some tips for writing fight sequences, and here are five tips for shooting them.