They Live (1988) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Must consume mass quantities!

John Carpenter returns to the worlds of horror and science-fiction with his most in your face story, They Live. Aliens want to control the population of the world through television and advertising, and there’s only one man that can stop them. Unfortunately, he’s all out of bubble gum.

First Impressions

The trailer presents a series of paranoid ramblings about some controlling group. The word “They” is repeatedly displayed on the screen between these moments. Wrestler Roddy Piper is attempting to convince a number of people to try on some sunglasses. The police, equipped with riot gear, come for some people. There’s a bunch of action, guns firing and explosions. Then, to break up the trailer’s action, Piper throws out a great quote about bubble gum. Who or what are the ‘They’ being referred to and just what is going on?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

They Live

They Live title card.

The Fiction of The Film

A homeless drifter (Roddy Piper), identified only as Nada in the film’s credits, wanders into Los Angeles. After leaving an unemployment office, where no work is available for him, he sees a blind street preacher espousing his warnings of the evils of the world which have corrupted the rich and powerful. He manages to find work on a construction site, but is warned by the foreman that he can’t sleep on site. Another worker named Frank (Keith David) offers to show Nada a local shelter where he can get a warm meal and a shower.

After meeting the organizer for the homeless encampment Gilbert (Peter Jason), Frank complains to Nada about the state of the country and the closure of the steel mills he used to work at. He also is upset that with workers losing their jobs, the owners of the factories were all able to give themselves raises. That evening a hacker interrupts the television station with warnings that humans are living in an “artificially induced state of consciousness.” Viewers begin getting headaches after watching that warning.

Nada notices people going in and out of the church across the street and goes to investigate. He finds a small lab setup with dozens of pairs of sunglasses, and overhears Gilbert speaking to the hacker and others about their plan. Later the camp is razed by police officers in riot gear, who also capture and beat several men including the bearded hacker and the street preacher. Nada manages to escape, but returns to the church and finds that a secret compartment he saw earlier was untouched. He grabs the box of sunglasses and heads into an alley in the downtown area.

They Live

When wearing the sunglasses, people see the world at it really is. A generic swath of subliminal messaging designed to control humans.

Wearing the glasses turns the world into a black and white image where he can suddenly see all sorts of subliminal messages, like “obey,” “conform,” or “stay asleep,” in place of billboards and magazine covers. He also notices some of the people appear to be aliens, with skull-like faces. It is noticed that he can “see” them, and the aliens report him to the police who detain him. He kills both officers (who were really aliens) and abducts a woman from the nearby bank, Holly (Meg Foster), and has her drive him to her house. While Nada is distracted trying to explain about the sunglasses she pushes him out a window and he rolls down the hill, running again from the cops.

Nada shows up at the construction site and attempts to convince Frank the sunglasses will allow him to see aliens. Frank hates being told what to do, and the two men beat each other senseless in the alley, until Nada is finally able to place the glasses on Frank’s face allowing him to finally see. They attend a meeting of the rebel group where Nada also is surprised to see Holly show up. The meeting is raided by the police who kill Gilbert and many others. Nada and Frank escape only by luck through a portal watch confiscated from an alien which zaps them to the creature’s home base.

There they see a ballroom event where the “human power elite” that work with the aliens are getting awards. Nada and Frank meet a drifter (Buck Flowers) whom they recognize from the homeless camp. He has “sold out” and works with the aliens now, having gotten cleaned up. The drifter shows them the inner workings of the base, including the TV studio where they broadcast their signal that subverts humans from seeing the truth. Nada finds Holly, who he remembers works at the station, and he, Frank and Holly head for the roof to stop the broadcast. Unfortunately Holly also works with the aliens, and kills Frank and injures Nada before he kills her and blows up the satellite dish allowing humans to see the aliens amongst them for the first time.

I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” – Nada

They Live

Nada decides to take matters into his own hands, now that he knows the truth. And he’s all out of bubble gum.

History in the Making

They Live is the first of five horror infused science-fiction films which Sci-Fi Saturdays will look at this October as part of the 31 Days of Horror 2021 project. It was John Carpenter’s follow-up horror film to classics such as Halloween, The Fog, Christine, and Prince of Darkness plus also a follow-up to his science-fiction films Dark Star, Escape from New York, The Thing, and Starman. They Live is not necessarily a departure for Carpenter, as it features a strong lead character and themes from his previous films. But the movie does present itself in a rather obvious way. Gone is some of the mystery and suspense that The Fog, The Thing or Prince of Darkness held. They Live is much more overt than that.

The film was a really a thinly veiled reaction to the American social reforms and policies of the mid-80s and of President Ronald Reagan. Carpenter creates a crazy conspiracy theory that the real reason for the United States social ills is an invasion of aliens that want us to destroy ourselves. They Live took themes from previous alien invasion stories, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and overlaid them on the changing economy and social strata of America. It is probably Carpenter’s biggest “message” movie, which either draws audiences in or pushes them away.

It was also the breakout role for wrestler-turned-actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He had made a splash with the WWF professional wrestling group starting in 1984, and became one of the best known celebrities in the 80s revival of the sport. They Live was his fourth credited film but only his second leading role, after Hell Comes to Frogtown, which became a cult hit. However it was Carpenter’s film that garnered him a much wider audience and allowed him to showcase his wit, charm and athleticism to more people. His quips from this film are still some of the most quoted lines from film.

They Live

Nada believes that Holly is on his side when she shows up at the meeting of the resistance. Unfortunately it’s all a ruse to destroy the rebels from the inside.


They Live stands on the shoulders of science-fiction films that came before it. From Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, alien invasions and especially secret alien invasions had been a staple of the genre for decades. The film was based off a short story called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, which was originally published in 1963 and adapted into comic book form in the anthology series Alien Encounters (issue 6, Apr, 1986). The idea that aliens hidden among the society are secretly controlling and manipulating the American economy was an interesting riff on the reptilian conspiracy theory in which shape-shifting alien lizards are running the government. This was also dealt with in a somewhat similar fashion, though not as much hidden, in the 1984 TV miniseries V.

The film also introduced the idea of special glasses that allowed humans to see the reality underneath the alien disguise. Hypnotized by alien microwaves humans were presented with subliminal messages intended to keep them docile and compliant. Scientists discover a way to coat sunglasses with a film that cuts through the brainwashing allowing the colorful world to be seen for what it really is. Carpenter uses black and white imagery to show the “real” world when the glasses are on compared to our normal reality in color. It’s a riff on The Wizard of Oz, where color is the fantastical escapist world, and black and white is the normal humdrum world. Except in the case of They Live, the black and white world holds the truth, and is preferable to the fantasy.

They Live also holds some horror elements to it. The unappealing look of the aliens (which ends up being a bit more goofy than scary) and the underlying terror that humans are being manipulated by alien forces are the two main elements. Carpenter has mentioned his penchant for the works of HP Lovecraft who wrote much about “the world underneath.” In this case the world underneath is the place that people are trying to get, rather than repressing the creatures that come from it. There’s also a sense of existential horror in realizing that you’re not in control of your own life. Having a strong character like Piper’s Nada to break through these walls is empowering to audiences.

They Live

Recognize that piece of alien tech? It’s the PKE meter from 1984s “Ghostbusters.”

Societal Commentary

The most obvious element of the film is its conspiracy theory that aliens have taken over the various echelons of power in the United States, specifically industry and corporate America, and are manipulating humans into destroying themselves. This is a thinly veiled guise allowing Carpenter (who was both writer and director) to discuss his thoughts on mid-80s social policies applied by Ronald Reagan. The character of Frank talks about the closure of steel mills in Pittsburgh which drive him out west looking for work. He is upset that hundreds of workers are out of a job but somehow the owners of these mills continued to get richer. They Live shows the ever growing rift between the poor and the rich that grew even larger in the 1980s. It showcases the disenfranchisement of the working class and the homeless as they are pushed further outside the bounds of society, needing to settle in tent cities away from the metropolitan area.

Carpenter also portrays the police as faceless, fascist thugs that storm into areas with riot gear and bulldozers razing these homeless encampments. The police beat citizens for now apparent reasons and burn the churches that serve as congregation points for the lower class. His answer to the question of why, is simple. The police (most of them) are aliens that are attempting to divide the human populace and force them to destroy themselves. If only the answer were this easy. The real reasons are much more complex than that, including years of economic policies, greed, and an imbalanced American dream that has pushed the working class to a point where they cannot rise out of the quagmire. The creation of a new indentured servitude which can never beat the system.

The imagery and ideas that Carpenter captures were shocking at the time and stand as prescient today. If only Carpenter’s reasoning for the social ills of America could be summed up in a simple conspiracy theory, it would seem like things aren’t as dire as they actually are. A moment from one of the televised interruptions by the rebel cell talks about the rise in temperatures around the planet, and explains that it’s due to the aliens needing the planet warmer to be more like wherever they came from. Considering that global climate change is a discussion that is much louder now than it was 35 years ago, it’s interesting to see that Carpenter had latched on to this idea at the time. It keeps the movie even that more relevant in the early 21st Century.

They Live

Oh crap! With the signal disabled, suddenly everyone can see the aliens in their midst.

The Science in The Fiction

As with many sci-fi films, the exact explanation of the technology is not addressed in detail. Partly to avoid breaking down the suspension of disbelief, and partially for the novelty. The film showcases everything that happens in the context of America, and specifically the Los Angeles metro area. But this must be happening the world over. Scientists discover this mysterious signal that scrambles the brains of humans allowing them to see what they believe is true. To counter this, they invent the Hofmann lenses for their glasses allowing people to see things as they are. The name may derive from Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann who was the first to synthesize LSD, a mind altering drug. Analysis of this technology however, starts to break down immediately.

The signal appears to only be coming from one location, cable station 45 in Los Angeles. Maybe there are other carrier signals around the country and the world, but for the purposes of this story, once the signal in LA is stopped, people begin to wake up. As with alien technology from other stories, that’s just stupid. Of course, it’s probably just an element of this story to make it convenient enough to work, but not intended to scale globally. It also seems strange that aliens, who consume the  same media that we do, would really make magazines and billboards with large slogans of compliance. Nada (whose name means no-one in Spanish) sees one of them buying a newspaper when first trying on the glasses, which shows all the reading material is propaganda slogans of compliance. Would they really buy a magazine called Consume just to placate the humans which they were hiding amongst? It’s a parable that doesn’t seem to work upon deep inspection.

The Final Frontier

While They Live provokes thought and discussion about classism and social issues, it’s not as good overall as much of Carpenter’s early work. It’s not as chilling as The Thing, or as terrifying as Halloween. But that might be okay since the story he’s telling and the intention behind the work is different. The film has something to say, and it does so vehemently and vociferously which makes Carpenter’s point. Obviously he feels that subtlety and nuance are hindrances in the way of presenting this important issue.

The film also has a number of fun things going for it. Piper is engaging as the homeless drifter the story centers around. Both he and Keith David share a great on screen chemistry as two men in similar positions that see various aspects of the problem presented. Their almost 15 minute fight about whether or not to put the sunglasses on stands as a centerpiece to a film about points of view and what happens when people of similar willpower come together to discuss opposing arguments. They Live is very much a product of its time, but presents a story about issues that are still issues for the modern world. For as simplistic as the film seems to be in its presentation, and the ease at which several people are able to solve the problem, it’s still a story which at its heart needs to be heard by more people.

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