November 4, 1988
John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage) and Ray Nelson (short story)
Roddy Piper as Nada
Keith David as Frank Armitage
Meg Foster as Holly Thompson
Reminiscent of alien body snatcher movies of the silver screen, They Live is a 1980s style apocalypse movie that involves a small band of humans fighting to save the Earth from an alien invasion. Instead of spaceships that destroy much of human civilization, ala War of the Worlds, or parasites that inhabit human hosts, ala several The Twilight Zone and Outer Limitsepisodes, the invaders transmit a signal that smuggles subliminal commands through the visual spectrum and into the general populace. The commands hypnotize the working class, blinding them to the aliens who live in plain sight in the finest clothes with the highest paying jobs and encouraging them to think only of commercial consumption and procreation. Their ultimate goal is to turn the human population of Earth into a slave class. As a whole, They Live is a critique of the consumer culture of America, as it shows how such a society can be used by outsiders to perpetuate its own demise. The aliens are exploitive and entrepreneurial. They exist to enrich themselves through the suffering of others. In other words, they are a Marxist caricature of capitalists.
The movie begins with an unemployed laborer – Nada – finding his way to Los Angeles. He finagles a job at a construction site, where he meets Frank, who takes him to a soup kitchen and homeless camp of fellow laborers. The outsider observes some unusual activity at a nearby church, which eventually leads him to a resistance network. He winds up in possession of a device they produce that blocks the alien signal and allows him to see reality. The remainder of the story revolves around his attempts, eventually involving Frank, to find and destroy the source of the signal. In the process, he uncovers mind-blowing aspects of the plot against humanity.
Like most John Carpenter movies, They Live is relatively low budget ($3,000,000), produced exponential profits ($13,000,000). It relies on a compelling storyline, helped along by decent special effects, mediocre acting and one of the best fight scenes I have seen. The motif of humankind being blinded to reality is reminiscent of Plato’s cave and prescient of The Matrix.They Live is part of Carpenter’s apocalypse series, which also includes The Thing (1982) andPrince of Darkness (1987). It is not a movie full of scares, or gore, but one that is meant to disturb those who watch it, as such a situation could be happening right as we speak and we would never know it until it was too late. Indeed, it is probably more relevant today, than in the 1980s, as our society is more reliant on data signals and more economically divided.