Review: They Live (1988)


Spoiler warning: this review reveals key elements of the film’s plot.

How is it that a goofy B-movie from the late 1980s is also one of the timeliest films I’ve seen this past year? The first time I watched They Live was in September 2008, during the beginnings of the financial crisis we still face, but before I realized the extent of the problems. I enjoyed the film, but didn’t think much of it at first. It lingered in the back of my mind, though, and my thoughts have often returned to it. Now, in 2012, long after the subprime mortgage crisis, after the big bail outs, after the revelations of wholesale fraud and corruption, amidst the incessant talk of stimulus and creating jobs and placing the economy above all else, and as the Occupy protests all but boil dry, They Live takes on a whole new power. This was a B-movie made during the end of Regan’s presidency, and it was a comment on the widespread commercialization of 1980s American society. The comments ring true now as much as then.

The film, like so much science fiction, is an allegory about our times. Roddy Piper plays “Nada” (nothing, no one, and Everyman), a decent though not very bright drifter, who is down on his luck but still trusts in the American Dream. He arrives at a tent shelter, full of other people looking for work, and overhears some strange happenings at the church across the street. After the police suddenly raid the church one night, John finds a pair of sunglasses in the ruins. He puts them on, and quickly notices the change in perspective the glasses afford. The world is black and white (read good versus evil). He now notices the subliminal messages, such as “Obey Authority,” that all advertisements and print contain. Most importantly, he sees “They” who walk among us and control us. The bottom line: They live, we sleep.

They have human heads with the skin peeled back. They are ugly (as Nada hilariously shouts at them), but They are more than just physically corrupt. They run the world. They are most of the rich and elite, and They keep us blind to their presence with the emissions from a giant generator.

Make no mistake: this is a B-movie. The production is fairly limited, although there is a certain charm to the look of the world through the sunglasses, which was obviously inspired by 1950s sci-fi. Likewise, the allegory is by no means subtle. The message is in your face. The film enacts a revolutionary fantasy, as Nada and his companions fight back and kick ass. We enjoy watching They get blown away.

However, the film offers more than just the satisfaction of seeing the Establishment get pummeled. In many ways the film is loud and silly, but Carpenter is smarter than you may expect with the ending. He abandons the typically conservative 1980s action movie ending, which usually involves a satisfying, conclusive reinforcement of the status quo. While the generator is destroyed at the end of They Live, so is Nada and the other good guys we’ve met, which throws their mission onto our laps. We see how we are controlled, but now it is up to us, not some action hero, to do something about it.

8 out of 10

They Live (1988)

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson; starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster.