Released in 1988, and directed by John Carpenter, They Live is one of those movies that is easy to define and categorize upon first glace; it’s science fiction. But the more you watch it – and I mean REALLY watch it, you’ll see that it transcends being pigeon-holed. Yes, the heart of it is, without a doubt, pure sci-fi, but it has elements of horror, comedy, political intrigue and action. It’s a buddy-cop movie wherein the cops are a couple of Everyman drifters and the bad guys are the ones in power.
In a nutshell, They Live (which is based on the short story “8 O’Clock in the Morning,” published in 1963 by Ray Nelson.), is the story of a drifter, John Nada (Roddy Piper), who has found himself in Los Angeles. Not having any luck finding work, Nada ends up in a homeless camp where he meets Frank (Keith David). Through a series of events, Nada discovers sunglasses that allow him to see the truth that everyone else is blind to: aliens are among us and are controlling our very lives. It’s then up to Nada and an initially skeptic and reluctant Frank to save the day. Or die trying.
Very early in the movie we get a glimpse of things to come when Nada sees a street preacher in a small park. “Outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners!” the preacher says, “They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They’re all about you! All around you!” Moments later, as Nada continues to walk along, police cruisers pull up and haul the preacher away.
When Nada finally discovers the truth of his situation via a pair of special sunglasses, we’re treated to one of Carpenter’s best visual treats (second only to the practical effects used in The Thing) as our view changes along with Nada’s from the colorful world we’re used to, to the stark black and white “reality” where the true horrors are revealed. Subliminal messages are everywhere – obey, consume, conform, buy, sleep, “This is your god” on paper money and, scariest of all, that seemingly one in four people walking the streets is a ghoulish humanoid (who we later learn are aliens).
Interestingly, the credits call the aliens as “ghouls” (Male Ghoul, Female Ghoul, etc) which might make one think of how the undead were referred to in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead which in turn leads to the classic Dawn of the Dead, a movie from roughly a decade earlier that also shines a light on the consumerism culture in a horrific way. The ensuing scenes see Nada stumbling around – the sunglasses are causing one mean headache – as he sees the lengths to which this infiltration has spread. It’s also when we get the iconic “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum” which is probably one of the greatest ad-libbed one-liners in cinematic history.
Of course, no review or look at They Live would be complete without mentioning THE fight scene which is well documented for its length and is arguably one of the most entertaining fight scenes ever. Many movies have certainly staged much more realistic fights – the type that are over in a few shots of well-placed blows to someone’s head – and more over-the-top, but this one, while violent, is really just a couple of guys who don’t really want to fight. But to Nada, he needs Frank to see the truth – there’s no way he can fight this fight alone and Frank is the closest thing to a friend he has. But Frank – well, he feels that he stuck his neck out for Nada and got him a job on the construction site, but then he blew it, making Frank look bad in the process. This, to Frank, was confirmation that he would be better of keeping everyone at arm’s length and just going about his business. He repeatedly tells Nada that he doesn’t want to get involved but neither man, however, is going to give in. I think part of Frank’s unwillingness to “put the glasses on” stems from the fact that he’s scared that Nada might be telling the truth and if he IS, then how can he ignore such a thing? Nada, meanwhile, is just so totally freaked out by what he’s discovered that he desperately needs someone to confirm that he’s not crazy and seeing things.
It’s kind of scary to watch They Live now and see how little things have changed; in fact, they seem to have gotten worse. The rich rule while the common man toils and scrapes out a living the best they can. The homeless camp against the backdrop of the high rises and office buildings shows the stark dichotomy between the two classes. The fact that the camp is almost literally at the “feet” of the big buildings reminds its worn and weary citizens – every single day – that they’re at the bottom. Piper was the butt of some jokes after he claimed that the film was a documentary, but I think everyone keyed in on the wrong aspect of the plot of the movie. People laughed, figuring Piper was a crazy, old pro wrestler who took one too many chair shots to the head. But what he meant was the whole aspect of society being led and controlled. Not from aliens, but from the politicians and people in charge. And that was really what the whole point of the movie was, not just aliens who walk among us.