#45: They Live


Director:  John Carpenter

Cast:  Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, a rather hot white star).  What, exactly, do you say about a late-eighties movie directed by John Carpenter and starring former wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper?  With an action SF setting involving alien invaders, no less?  Everything about the film suggests it’s going to be a no-holds barred schlock-fest…and yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s a bit more to this film than that.  Don’t get me wrong, the movie is not going to open your eyes to the mysteries of the universe, but it is both fun and somewhat more thought-provoking that is initially apparent.



I have to point this out again.  This movie is an alien invasion-action film starring former wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and directed by John Carpenter released in 1988.

The surface indications are that this film has absolutely no business on the Top 50 Films list, and it would be easy to treat the movie as a joke—93 minutes of pure and utter second-rate junk.

It would also be a mistake.  There’s more to this film than immediately meets the eye:  it’s a scathing criticism of the ’80s consumer culture.  And let’s not forget that performing as a wrestler requires both athletic and acting talent, and that Carpenter is sometimes underrated (he did give us Starman, for example, and the first Halloween is often overlooked as a slasher film when it’s actually an elegant and terrifying suspense film).

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy meets Friend.  Boy discovers Aliens (they are living among us and programming us with subliminal advertising).  Aliens attack boy.  Boy flees.  Boy meets Girl (and forces her help him at gunpoint).  Boy loses Girl (when she pushes him out a second story window).  Boy finds Friend (and fights his friend to make the friend see his point of view).  Girl finds Boy and Friend.  Boy, Girl and Friend attack Aliens.  Girl kills Friend (where Boy can’t see it).  Girl betrays Boy.  Boy kills Girl.  Boy destroys secret Alien device.  Aliens kill Boy.  Dying Boy gives Aliens the finger.

More details:  Well, I’m pretty sure that didn’t make any sense.  Narratively, this story is a little more complex and action-packed than a lot of the older films we’ve seen so far.  So let’s see if I can put some more details down so you can actually figure out what’s going on.

Our hero is Nada—the only name he uses in the entire film—and he’s a down-on-his-luck construction worker.  He’s staying at a shantytown or homeless camp when he becomes suspicious of the church across the street.  The church turns out to be a front of some kind, with a hidden compartment full of boxes.  Nada takes one of the boxes, which turns out to be full of sunglasses.  Nada discards the box, but keeps one pair of sunglasses.

When Nada puts on the sunglasses, they reduce the world to black and white.  In the harsh sight provided by the sunglasses, subliminal advertising hidden in normal advertising is revealed:  Obey, Marry and Reproduce, Stay Asleep, Buy, Consume…  Money turns out to bear the words “This is your God.”  What’s worse, not all humans are actually human:  some are aliens hidden among us, who look just like us, if you don’t have special sunglasses.

When the aliens realize that Nada can see them—his reaction makes it pretty clear—the aliens disguised as police officers attempt to capture him, which doesn’t go so well for the aliens.  Nada winds up well-armed after he deals with the “police.”  Like any normal American, he turns to violence to solve the problem, shooting a bunch of aliens in a bank.

When he flees, he finds a woman, Holly, and forces her to take him to her home at gunpoint (Holly is played by Meg Foster, who is quite pretty but has rather creepy eyes).  Nada’s luck takes a turn for the worse at this point—if things are going to get worse than being homeless and being forced to run for your life, being pushed out a second-story window of a house built on a very high hill would rate right on down there.

Nada goes back to the garbage to find the discarded box of sunglasses, and then Nada finds Armitage, a coworker who took him to the shantytown in the first place.  Nada once again resorts to violence to solve his problems.  He fights Armitage until he can force Armitage to put on the sunglasses.  In Nada’s defense, Armitage insists on viewing Nada as a crazed killer on the run (that bank incident, you know), and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him and his crazy sunglasses.

So, the two fellows find the resistance group that’s making the sunglasses in the first place, and that’s when everything is made clear:  the aliens are using television to broadcast the control signal that keeps humans from seeing the aliens or consciously seeing the subliminal messaging.  Holly shows up at the meeting, explains that she believes Nada, and says that she works at the local television station, and that’s where the aliens have hidden their transmitter.

Then the police show up, and they begin indiscriminately killing everyone at the resistance meeting.  Nada and Armitage escape and go to the television station, where they meet up with Holly again.  With Holly’s help, they make their way to the roof, but as they’re climbing the stairs Holly shoots Armitage.  Nada is on the roof at this point, and using the sunglasses, he can see the transmitter.  What he doesn’t see coming is Holly’s treachery:  she’s thrown in with the aliens, and she’s packing heat.

Unfortunately for Holly, Nada is a little trickier than she thought.  He drops his weapon, appearing to surrender to her, but he’s got a gun up his sleeve, and as soon as she thinks he’s harmless, he pulls it out and kills her.  By now the aliens are firing at Nada, and he’s shot and wounded, but he’s still got a gun, so he shoots the transmitter.

As Nada lays dying on the roof of the television station, all over the world people begin to wake up and see the aliens and their hidden messages for what they are, and Nada gives the aliens the finger…


Well, as social criticism goes, this film is not subtle.  John Carpenter really didn’t like the ’80s consumer culture at all.  And perhaps he’s right:  perhaps the greed and rampant consumer spending and the urge to own more and better stuff really does only make sense if alien hypnosis is at the core of it.  On the other hand, human societies have produced a lot of wierd behavior over the years, so let’s just say it’s a metaphor and leave it at that.

Carpenter cleverly taps into class resentments in service to his theme.  Nada’s name is a commentary on where he fits in the socioeconomic order, and both he and his friend Frank Armitage are blue collar guys without homes.  Holly, on the other hand, is a rich television executive who lives in a beautiful house on the hills, and she dresses very sharply.  The aliens, too, are well-dressed with all the indicia of wealth, including Rolex watches, furs and jewelry.  And their human collaborators—there are many—are in on the secret, and getting rich by keeping the secret and working with the aliens.

Carpenter is not being subtle in this film.  The message is obvious and overt, with no hidden agenda.  It’s also a very simple message.  Once he’s delivered it, Carpenter sits back and gets on with the action.  There are no suggestions for fixing the problem, no deep exploration of why the aliens are doing what they are (there is a throwaway explanation, but Carpenter’s eyes are focused on the immediate story), and no real promise that the ending of the film fixes anything.  In fact, both Nada and Armitage die as a result of going up against the established order.

For the most part, the film’s visuals are pretty normal, with the only exception being the aliens’ appearance, sort of distorted skull faces which look like they might be the product of 1950s design instead of the 1980s.  On the other hand, the black and white vision provided by the sunglasses may also work in terms of the film’s extended metaphor:  the Truth is black-and-white, right-or-wrong…

Carpenter is too good a filmmaker to give us the serious (and depressing) anti-greed message without some leavening of comedy.  Most of the humor in the film comes from Nada’s snappy one-liners, and this is the film that gave us the pop culture staple “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Piper is quite effective as Nada, and brings an air of world-weariness to the part as well as an irreverence and devil-may-care attitude.  It would be easy to succumb to despair in Nada’s circumstances, but Piper’s portrayal of Nada is more stoic than that.  Keith David as Frank Armitage is a sidekick who holds his own, especially in the fight scene.  Finally, Meg Foster as Holly is both believable and creepy.  Initially stand-offish (who wouldn’t be, when being held at gunpoint?), she appears to warm to Nada before she tricks him and shoves him out a window.  This is no shrinking violet…I suspect that it would be just as easy to regard the performances of these actors as flat and lifeless, but I really don’t think that’s fair.  They display believable emotions when it’s necessary.

Most of the violence in the film comes when the well-armed protagonists confront other well-armed folks, but the film does take advantage of Piper’s background in the fistfight between Frank Armitage and Nada.  It’s a long, brutal fight, noted in many a critical review and now a sort of staple in pop culture.  South Park‘s infamous “cripple fight” scene between Jimmy and Timmy actually tracks this fight perfectly, to the point where the animation matches up with the movie’s soundtrack.


Does this movie belong on the top 50 list?  It depends on your criteria.

As a thought-provoking, message-laden film, the film is unsatisfying.  It gets in, throws the message in your face, and gets out.  While you could argue that the message is simple and doesn’t need any more than that, that an indictment of conspicuous consumerism is what it is, I would have preferred to see either an alternative to a destructive way of life or that destructive way of life carried out to its inevitable conclusion.  Either device would have given the message more bite, though possibly at the cost of robbing the film of its action-oriented arc.

Ultimately, this film is a comic action movie.  The message is really secondary.  Sit back and enjoy the ridiculous and fun fights and situation for what they are, and the film shines.  Carpenter may have included a message, but the real purpose of the film is to entertain as much as it is to deliver the message.  And this film definitely entertains.


5 Responses to “#45: They Live”

  1. Well, I like it enough to put it in my video library. Of course, I think you’re taking it out of context. At the time when it aired, it was filled with mind boggling concepts. The idea that we were being controlled by outside forces. As in the signs on the street: Marry and Reproduce. Obey. Money is your god. Spend.

    Buy more stuff, so you can be a slave to your possessions. The slow erosion of the middle class, which can now be called the rapid erosion.

  2. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here.

    Three things:

    1. It never registered to me that Keith David’s character is named Armitage. As big an HP Lovecraft fan as Carpenter is, that’s almost certainly a tip of the hat to The Dunwich Horror. Neat!

    2. I can’t believe you didn’t mention how long that fist-fight between Piper and David is! At one time, I’m told, it was the longest fight in American movie history, and it’s so ridiculous it deserves its own separate paragraph.

    3. What in God’s name is up with that final picture?!

    • On the script, Carpenter was originally credited as Armitage as well. And yes, it’s definitely deliberate. I did mention the fight a bit, but…well, you really have to see it, I think. And that final picture is one of the alien survivors who pushes us to consume, buy, consume, buy…

  3. I watched it this weekend and I thought it was a real disappointment. It’s fairly high rated on IMDB, but that must be by people who like their social change messages force-fed. It was a crummy, cheesy, low budget movie. At it was perhaps the least subtle with its social message of any movie I’ve ever seen. I think the ideas of alien control and the world being different than it appears were good ones, but they could have been done in so much a better way. Finally I thought the movie was overly partisan. It’s easy to guess which political party Carpenter supports. On the other hand, The Matrix explored somewhat the same themes without taking a partisan stance. I would prefer to watch my movies for entertainment and choose to watch the political presentations that i prefer.

    • First, thanks for the comment!

      Second, I’m sorry you were disappointed by it. The social commentary didn’t bother me very much, but that may be because Carpenter did not offer a solution, and so I didn’t take it one way or the other in terms of political orientation. I probably take it for granted that our society is overly materialistic and consumer-oriented, and so it didn’t bother me. Not that I’m trying to get into politics, just stating that since I more or less agree with a less consumer-oriented lifestyle, the message didn’t bother me.

      It’s ultimately a cheesy action flick, and on that level I thought it was great fun. Another commenter (cmmarcum above) points out that the ideas were very new and ground-breaking at the time, though personally I’d guess that Looker, a 1981 film, may have been the first to feature subliminal forms of mind control as a main plot device.

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