Running time: 93 min.
Release date: November 4, 1988
They Live is director John Carpenter's answer to the influence of Reaganomics. Everything seen on television is designed to sell you something and all we need to do is consume, breed and obey. Another subtle jab is taken at Ted Turner's expense; he made the decision to colorize some classic black and white films, which Carpenter obviously object to, so this film strips the color away and reveals the truth. The premise of the film, aliens have come to Earth and use subliminal messaging to control the population, is very clear and concise. The execution starts off on the right foot but then once that conceit has been revealed, we get a silly B-level action film that still entertains.
Professional wrestler Roddy Piper stars as "John Nada", even though we never get to here his name uttered at any point in the film. He is supposed to represent the everyman; he's a drifter he shows up in Los Angeles looking for work. He manages to get a construction job and meets a man named Frank (Keith David). Needing a place to stay, Frank takes him to a shantytown, where we meet others who are also facing desperate times. While helicopters hover overhead, TV signals are interrupted by a bespectacled man warning people to wake up and question authority. Nada notices strange doings at a nearby church and goes to investigate. It apparently is a front for some type of operation involving boxes and a laboratory. That night, police raid the church and the shantytown, driving people out. Nada returns to the church the next day and steals a box that remained hidden from view. He finds that it contains nothing but sunglasses, as he borrows a pair.
What happens next kicks the movie into the next gear. Nada discovers that the sunglasses strip away the color spectrum and reveals subliminal messaging on billboards everywhere, instructing to OBEY, CONSUME, MARRY AND BREED and STAY ASLEEP. Nada also discovers that it reveals wealthy-looking humans to actually be hideous aliens. Nada runs afoul of one in a grocery store, as the alien reports to others via wristwatch: "I have one that can see!". Soon after, Nada has an encounter with police (also aliens) that leads to Nada killing them and taking their guns. Suddenly, Nada is going on a shooting spree, kicking ass and chewing bubblegum. If only he had some bubblegum left! In order to escape from police, he takes a female hostage (Meg Foster). They go back to her place, where she reveals her name is Holly and she works for a TV news station. When Nada lets his guard down, Holly shoves him out of a window and calls police. Nada escapes and goes into hiding.
Nada attempts to convince Frank to try out the sunglasses, but Frank wants nothing to do with Nada. This leads to an extended fight scene that has to be one of the more ridiculous and entertaining fight scenes ever witnessed. Carpenter's tongue is firmly in cheek at this point, with the plot of the film revealed. Nada and Frank join up with a group of anti-alien activists who are behind the secret sunglasses. One of the plot holes involves the character Holly and her motivations or allegiance. Nada trusts her even though she never really gave him (or the viewer) any reason to. She is a central figure in the film and seems to switch allegiances throughout without any explanation. Nada and Frank find themselves in the middle of alien HQ in a most contrived manner, meeting The Character Who Provides Way Too Much Information, and then we get the requisite action clichés before the final act. The closing scene is a reminder that what we've seen has been satirical and that there is humor in satire.
Carpenter wrote the screenplay using the name "Frank Armitage" mainly because he based the story idea from different sources. The main source was the short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson. The screenplay is filled will allegory and much like the plot of the film, it contains hidden messages. It is a very witty screenplay, but at the same time it is filled with holes and questions that do not get answered all that clearly. Carpenter makes up for that by providing humor and keeping a brisk pace to the plot. As the leading man, Roddy Piper provides a physical presence even if his dialogue is stunted at times. The film is filled with cheesy one-liners that will either make one groan or laugh, dependent on your own sense of humor, of course. Meg Foster provides very little depth to her character but that is more the fault of the screenplay, as her motivations are confusing.
The special effects are low-budget but the film feels more like an homage to B-movie sci-fi films of the 1950s and 1960s. It works on that level quite easily. The biggest laugh in the film came at the very end, but along the way there are other laughs to be found, most of which come during the fight scene between Nada and Frank, which was definitely drawn out for just that purpose. Although They Live is a flawed film, Carpenter has infused enough charm to make it work. The premise is intriguing and brought to the surface just enough to keep one interested, even if it is not fully explored.