They Live (1988)

Action, Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower
A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth.
A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter.
  • MCA/Universal Pictures Company:
  • R Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 04 Nov 1988 Released:
  • 10 Oct 2000 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Ray Nelson, John Carpenter Writer:
  • John Carpenter Director:
  • N/A Website:

Trailer:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.5/10

They Live. Where to begin? Yes, it is goofy. Yes the production value is very low. Yes the action is standard. The guns never empty. The fights are poorly choreographed at times. But that, my friends, is not the point.

This film was an attack on the Regan era. An attack on the rampant consumerism of the 80's. But open your mind. Saying that it's just an attack on the 80's is merely shutting your eyes. Telling yourself that things have gotten better. Sorry to disapoint you, but they haven't.


Rowdy Roddy Piper puts on some sunglasses. The world changes. Billboards now say Obey or Sleep. Or Marry and Reproduce. Magazines no longer have articles or advertisements. They are blank white pages with said phrases upon them. Money now are white pieces of paper that say This is Your God. Boy oh boy are they right.

So watch They Live. Grab some beer and score some corn. Enjoy the cheese. Enjoy the great one-liners. But also pay attention to the lines that sum up the truth. Remember the point of the film. Then go outside. Re-enter the corporate world outside your door.

You won't need special glasses to see the truth.
Highly Underrated8/10
I have to say something here. This movie is actually very good. It was a mixture of sci-fi and political and sociological imagery. I thought the fact that the turncoat working with the aliens that were brainwashing the public was employed in the media was a brilliant way of showing how the media moguls consider us to be sheeple and use their power to persuade any way they see fit. This movie was actually quite well down, considering it did not have a blockbuster budget.

I would rather watch this than waste my time on the Matrix, which I think is a complete waste of time. The main plot of the movie was Nada discovering a worldwide conspiracy that used subliminal messages to "herd the sheep". Is this not a metaphor of what we see ever day? The media, commercials, billboards, etc, use subliminal messaging to encourage the actions of the public at large.

John Carpenter did a wonderful job. Roddy Piper's acting abilities were definitely above average, which is a lot more that I will ever to be able to say about anything Keanu Reeves has ever done. As usual, Keith David turned in a great performance. The reason this a cult classic is because it is a very good movie that requires the watcher to think.
Clever and fun, with plenty of Carpenter weirdness7/10
WARNING: The author of this review loves challenging films.

They Live is based on a pulp sci-fi story about aliens who live among us and manipulate us through subliminal advertising, other mind control techniques, and sometimes, guns and bulldozers. Like most Carpenter films, its artistic, fun, intelligent and does not take itself too seriously.

As usual, Carpenter's casting is brilliant. Roddy Piper plays the good-hearted but not very bright construction worker who is both the hero and protagonist of the film. Keith David, whose character is just a little bit brighter, is his unwilling sidekick. Piper's character sees some strange goings-on in a local church, hears some weird paranoid ramblings from a street preacher, and becomes especially curious when the church is raided by 30-40 police officers and the vagrant camp where he lives is bulldozed one night. Soon after, he finds a pair of sunglasses in the now abandoned church, that literally changes his view of the world around him. The fight scene between David and Piper, while straight out of TV wrestling, is one of the most jarring and bizarre scenes in the movie - it goes on for a very long time - which nicely and subtly points out its significance in moving the plot forward. When Piper finally gets the sunglasses on David's face, he is vindicated and the last shred of doubt about his sanity disappears. From that point forward, they are both committed to saving the world from the alien menace. Further description of the plot would approach a spoiler so I won't go any further.

Both of the main characters succeed in dominating the screen, to the point that it is hard to even notice the contributions of the rest of the cast. Both actors are surprisingly good, though understandably typecast (these are, after all, two very big guys) but - who the hell is Keith David? look him up here on IMDb.com and I'm sure you'll be as surprised at I was. He's quite an accomplished character actor.

Raymond St Jacques, for all of his five or so minutes of screen time, makes a lasting impression, and Meg Foster is perfect for her ambiguity. Overall, the character development in this film is quite excellent despite the difficulty of pulling it off in a decidedly B sci-fi genre.

From an artistic and technical point of view, the film must be judged against Carpenter's other works. Carpenter has practically created his own film genre, and each of his films bears his mark very clearly. Carpenter's camera work is remarkable for its unremarkableness. He chooses not to use gimmicks and allows his cameras to tell the story without embellishing it. Like his version of The Thing, this technique fits very well in this film, as it helps the viewer suspend disbelief in what would otherwise seem as ludicrous as an episode of the X-Files.

Carpenter often makes his own soundtracks. Of these, the soundtrack for this film is very good, but terribly repetitive and, after a while, a bit grating. Nevertheless, its goofy redundancy helps to lend a comic edge to the film.

Is there a point?

I would argue that there is. Carpenter is always more interested in fun than poignancy, but he doesn't shy away from recognizing the value of the material he brings to the screen. Of all of his films, They Live is one of the most overtly political - as it carries some very clever messages about capitalism, conformity, poverty and the horror that everyday life can be for some people. This is all done, however, with a good sense of humor and an almost teenage sense of rebelliousness, all very typically Carpenter.

A great film for B-movie fans, intelligent sci-fi fans and those who enjoy film as an art form.
Clever sci-fi film with current cultural relevance10/10
An unemployed man in the 80s (of the WWF variety, complete with Mel-mullet) shows up in the big city looking for work, American Dream intact. He finds a "Hooverville"-like (perhaps Reaganville!) community that takes him in and finds work in construction. He notices that several of the providers are ostensibly up to no good and hold meetings at the local church. He stumbles upon a secret door and finds a stash of...80s sunglasses! After the community is destroyed by the police, our baffled working-class hero pops on a pair of the glasses, which allows him see the world as it really is, and wake up out of his sleeeepy false consciousness! Was Carpenter reading up on his Marx? Maybe! Either way, this sci-fi/action flick is fantastic, cheesy, and clever. "They Live" was obviously influenced by the excess of the 80s, but doesn't come across as dated and actually seems very relevant to the current cultural climate in the US. There are various flaws (namely, the creepy-in-a-bad-way Meg Foster and her character), but overall this is an excellent, amusing, and entertaining film. My Rating: 9.5/10
elite, parasitic subsociety exploits American working class--reflects real American society?10/10
This movie is not so much about aliens who are hiding among us, but instead it taps into the deeply submerged suspicion held by most of us that we are being manipulated and taken advantage of by the elite of American society, by our leaders, by the rich, etc. Also, we sometimes feel that we are manipulated and programmed (in a subtle way) to respect hierarchical authority ( e.g., the "OBEY" subliminal command from the movie).

Some leftist thinkers might say that human societies are in a way being parasitized by the elite of their societies, and that the elite operate as a parasitic sub-society, living off of the lower classes. America might be said to be operated more in such a fashion (i.e., parasitized by the elite) than are the countries of western Europe. Obvious examples of this parasitic behavior are the "golden handshakes" and backscratching exchanged between corporate CEO's and the Boards of Directors of their companies. But it is far more pervasive than just that.

_They_Live_ uses the invisible alien elite as a proxy for our suspicions about how we are all being exploited by the elite of our real-life society, and how these elite are subtly programming us to accept this exploitation.

So, the major theme of the movie is not, as another poster correctly pointed out, about being manipulated to be good little consumers in a crassly commercial world. No, it is far more profound than that. Instead, it is more about how the working class Americans in _They Live_ are being exploited by the elite upper crust, who, in the movie, happen to be aliens, but who, in the real world, are a subsociety that use their collective power to exploit the rest of us.

Unfortunately, this movie sometimes has an unintentionally comic air to it. Still, the exploration of that theme is so rare in pop culture, and that theme is so profound, and reaches so far into what American society is, was, and is becoming, that this movie is a Must-See for anyone with an interest in politics and sociology.