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They Live is a 1988 American satirical science fiction action horror film written and directed by John Carpenter. The film stars Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster. It follows a nameless drifter (called "John Nada" in the credits), who discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media.
At release it was number one in the box office, but sales soon suffered, though the film was nominated for two Saturn Awards. The film has since garnered a large cult following. The film has had a lasting impact on street art, particularly that of Shepard Fairey, quotations have entered the popular culture, and it makes appearances on all-time lists for best fight scenes.
An unemployed drifter named John Nada (Roddy Piper) finds construction work in Los Angeles, and befriends fellow construction worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who leads him to a local shantytown soup kitchen. There, Nada encounters strange activity around the church: a blind preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) loudly chastising others to wake up, a police helicopter scouts them overhead, and a drifter (George Buck Flower) complains that his TV signal is continually interrupted by a man warning everyone about those in power. Nada discovers the nearby church is a front; the choir heard outside is an audio recording and the building is filled with scientific equipment and cardboard boxes. Nada finds a box hidden in the wall, but flees when the preacher notices him. That night, the police attack and bulldoze the shantytown. Nada returns in the morning to find the church empty, but with the hidden boxes still in the wall. He takes one of the boxes and in an alley, he opens the box and finds it filled with sunglasses. Taking a pair, he hides the box in a garbage can.
Nada quickly discovers the sunglasses have unique properties. After putting them on, the world around him appears in black and white. They also allow him to see that media and advertising hide omnipresent subliminal totalitarian commands to obey, consume, reproduce and conform. Many people in positions of wealth and power are actually humanoid aliens with skull-like faces. In a grocery store, Nada confronts an alien woman, who then speaks into her wristwatch, notifying others about him. Two alien police officers try to apprehend Nada but he kills them and takes their guns. He goes on a shooting spree, killing several aliens that he encounters in a nearby bank. He sees one vanish using its wristwatch. Nada escapes, destroying a small, flying saucer-like alien surveillance drone and taking a Cable 54 assistant director, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), hostage. At her hill-top home, Nada tries to convince her of the truth. He also begins suffering migraine headaches as a result of using the glasses. Holly finds his story absurd. Catching him unaware, Holly shoves him through a window and calls the police. Nada tumbles down a steep hillside and escapes, leaving his sunglasses behind.
Now a fugitive, Nada returns to the alley where he finds the garbage can that held the other glasses is empty, however he retrieves the box from a nearby garbage truck. Frank meets Nada, who is now a wanted fugitive, to give him his paycheck; though Nada tells his story, Frank does not believe him and tells Nada he wants nothing further to do with him. Nada engages in a long street fight with Frank, trying to force him to put on a pair of sunglasses. Finally, after gaining the upper hand, Nada places the glasses on Frank, who now understands. The two rent a hotel room to discuss their predicament. Gilbert (Peter Jason), a member of the shantytown, discovers them and notifies them about a secret meeting with other activists.
At the meeting, Nada and Frank are given contact lenses to replace their sunglasses. They learn from the bearded man's broadcast that the aliens control Earth as their third world, depleting its resources and causing global warming before moving on to other planets. The aliens use a subliminal signal broadcast into people's brains to camouflage themselves. Destroying its source will allow everyone on Earth to see their true form. Frank is given an alien wristwatch which functions as a complex radio and teleportation device. Holly appears, apparently joining the cause before apologizing to Nada. However, the police suddenly attack the meeting, killing everyone, while Nada and Frank manage to fight their way out. After being cornered in an alley, Frank accidentally opens a temporary portal by throwing the watch, through which the two jump into a network of underground passages.
The two find the aliens in a grand hall celebrating with their elite human collaborators. The homeless drifter from earlier, now a well-dressed collaborator, believes the two to be collaborators as well. He takes them on a tour of the passages, revealed to link the alien society, including a space travel port. A further passage leads to the basement of the Cable 54 station, the source of the aliens' signal. The two then launch an attack, killing many alien soldiers. Nada and Frank fight their way through the building to find the broadcaster on the roof, before meeting Holly and taking her along. As Nada climbs up a staircase to the signal broadcaster disguised as a satellite dish, Holly suddenly shoots and kills Frank. Finally revealing herself to be yet another human collaborator, Holly takes aim at Nada and persuades him to stop as an alien-manned police helicopter hovers overhead. Nada complies by dropping his weapon, but then retrieves a hidden pistol from his sleeve and kills her. He then shoots and destroys the broadcaster before being fatally wounded by the aliens in their helicopter. Before he dies, Nada gives them the finger as his last defiant gesture now that he scored the final victory over the aliens. With the signal destroyed, humans all over the world are shown discovering the aliens in their midst.
Roddy Piper as John Nada,
Keith David as Frank Armitage,
Meg Foster as Holly Thompson,
Raymond St. Jacques as Street Preacher,
George 'Buck' Flower as Drifter,
Peter Jason as Gilbert,
John Lawrence as Bearded Man,
Susan Barnes as Brown-Haired Woman,
Sy Richardson as Black Revolutionary,
Susan Blanchard as Ingenue,
Norman Alden as Construction Foreman,
The idea for They Live came from a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in November 1963, involving an alien invasion in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which Nelson, along with artist Bill Wray, adapted into a story called "Nada", published in the Alien Encounters comic book anthology (cover date: April 1986). John Carpenter describes Nelson's story as "...a D.O.A.-type of story, in which a man is put in a trance by a stage hypnotist. When he awakens, he realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that alien creatures are controlling humanity. He has only until eight o'clock in the morning to solve the problem." Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the comic book and short story and wrote the screenplay, using Nelson's story as a basis for the film's structure.
The more political elements of the film are derived from Carpenter's growing distaste with the ever-increasing commercialization of 1980s popular culture and politics, particularly the influence of Reaganomics, the economic policies promoted by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He remarked, "I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money." To this end, Carpenter thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colorized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space." (Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.) The director commented on the alien threat in an interview: "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film." The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls, according to Carpenter, who said, "The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings."
Because the screenplay was the product of so many sources--a short story, a comic book, and input from cast and crew--Carpenter decided to use the pseudonym "Frank Armitage", an allusion to one of the filmmaker's favorite writers, H. P. Lovecraft (Henry Armitage is a character in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror). Carpenter has always felt a close kinship with Lovecraft's worldview and according to the director, "Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the 'world underneath'. His stories were about gods who are repressed, who were once on Earth and are now coming back. The world underneath has a great deal to do with They Live."
For the crucial role of Nada, the filmmaker cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper, whom he met at WrestleMania III earlier in 1987. For Carpenter it was an easy choice: "Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him." Carpenter was impressed with Keith David's performance in The Thing and needed someone "who wouldn't be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own." To this end, Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for the actor.
They Live was shot in eight weeks during March and April 1988, principally on location in downtown L.A., with a budget only slightly greater than $3,000,000. One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-a-half minute alley fight between David and Piper over a pair of the special sunglasses. Carpenter recalls that the fight took three weeks to rehearse: "It was an incredibly brutal and funny fight, along the lines of the slugfest between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man."
The film opened on November 4, 1988 and debuted at #1 at the North American box office grossing $4,827,000 during its opening weekend. However, the film's audience quickly dwindled and it spent only two weeks in the top ten. The film had a total domestic gross of $13,008,928. Carpenter is on record as attributing the film's initial commercial failure to the hypothesis that "those who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don't want to be enlightened". The film's original release date, advertised in promotional material as October 21, 1988, was pushed back two weeks to avoid direct competition with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, which was a success at the box office.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 83%, with the critical consensus saying "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter." Metacritic, an aggregator of film critics' ratings and reviews, gave the film a rating average of 52 out of 100.
In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Carpenter's wit and storytelling craft make this fun and watchable, although the script takes a number of unfortunate shortcuts, and the possibilities inherent in the movie's central conceit are explored only cursorily." Jay Carr, writing for The Boston Globe, said "Once Carpenter delivers his throwback-to-the-'50s visuals, complete with plump little B-movie flying saucers, and makes his point that the rich are fascist fiends, They Live starts running low on imagination and inventiveness", but felt that "as sci-fi horror comedy, They Live, with its wake-up call to the world, is in a class with Terminator and RoboCop, even though its hero doesn't sport bionic biceps".Allmovie contributor Paul Brenner gave the film three and a half out of five stars.
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. So is its crazy inconsistency, since the film stops trying to abide even by its own game plan after a while." Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, "it's just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre". Rick Groen, in The Globe and Mail, wrote, "the movie never gets beyond the pop Orwell premise. The social commentary wipes clean with a dry towelette - it's not intrusive and not pedantic, just lighter-than-air."
The 2012 documentary film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology presented by Slovene philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek starts with an analysis of the film They Live: Žižek uses the main trope of the film, the wearing of the special sun-glasses reveals the truth of that which is perceived, to explain his definition of ideology. Žižek states:
"They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. ... The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. ... When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom."
The film was ranked #18 on Entertainment Weekly magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list. Rotten Tomatoes ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper's character, John Nada, and Keith David's character, Frank Armitage, seventh on their list of the "The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever".
Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down," and wrote a book-length homage to it for the Soft Skull Press Deep Focus series.
Shepard Fairey also credits the movie as a major source of inspiration, sharing a similar logo to his "OBEY" campaign. "They Live was ... the basis for my use of the word 'obey,'" Fairey said. "The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising."
Video game character Duke Nukem quotes, "I'm here to chew bubble gum and kick ass -- and I'm all out of bubblegum" frequently in the game.
Best Science Fiction Film
Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award
On November 6, 2012 Shout! Factory released a Collector's Edition of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray.
In 2014, Universal Studios released it on DVD along with The Thing, Village of the Damned, and Virus as part of the 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens.