A pair of mysterious sunglasses, secret messages hiding in advertising, a weird religious cult preaching about the overthrow of a government, and aliens? That’s John Carpenter’s They Live at its core.
The film, starring former WWE superstar “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and character actor par excellence Keith David, is apparently loosely based on a 1960s short story called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” though I confess I wasn’t aware of this until doing research for this article. If you read the story, you can see where Carpenter cribbed the basic concept of aliens masquerading as humans in power, but the details in the film veer quite far from the source material.
Subliminal advertising had been discussed for decades by the time They Live came to theaters in 1988, but the idea of widespread messages hiding in mass media touched upon significant fears of 1980s America. Carpenter is no fan of Reaganomics or of the wealthy elite ruling class, and it’s clearly evident in the way he shows the power structure in his dystopian America. It’s no secret Carpenter is on the liberal left side of the American political system, as this movie makes super clear, but even if you’re not on the same side, don’t let that spoil your enjoyment. It works on both the satire and meta-satire levels.
Roddy Piper plays drifter by the name of John Nada. Nada finds work as a construction worker for low pay and no benefits, and is forced to eat at a local soup kitchen. Later he watches a mysterious message breaks into a television broadcast and talk about a secret conspiracy. He then runs into a preacher who spouts some cultlike phrases about the same conspiracy. The church is raided by an armed secret police force, but not before Nada takes a pair of sunglasses, and that’s where he learns the conspiracy is real.
The technology in the sunglasses allows wearers to see the secret messaging behind seemingly benign advertising. Those messages say things like “Obey,” a phrase famously co-opted by noted street artist Shepard Fairey when he super-imposed it on a painting of Andre the Giant’s face. When Nada turns the glasses to look at some rich people in the street, they’re revealed to be skeletal looking aliens masquerading as regular folks. One of them recognizes when Nada sees them for who they are and alerts the authorities.
From that point on the plot becomes a relatively typical Carpenter film with plenty of ridiculous gunfights, low budget explosions, cheesy dialogue, and quippy one-liners, the most famous of which Nada delivers in the lobby of a bank. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
(Content Warning – hilarious one-liner followed by 1980s gun violence)
The movie would be a forgettable film if not for the one-liners and political overtones that raise it up to cult classic status. It helps that it was written, directed, and scored by Carpenter, who by this point had already established his importance to the film industry through Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. It’s worth noting Carpenter did the music for most of his films, and as such was an inspiration to more modern writer/director/ musicians like Robert Rodriguez It’s also important not to underestimate the impact of Carpenter’s style of film-making, as many directors clearly take inspiration from Carpenter’s work, including horror directors like David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), sci-fi directors like the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), and auteurs like Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).
While the movie doesn’t get as much love as Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween, or The Thing, it’s definitely worth watching. It’s cheesy at times, hilarious often, and it’s John Carpenter through and through. I wouldn’t say I like it better than the three films mentioned above (or Escape from New York, another great pulp classic we’ll likely end up covering at some point), but I think I’ve rewatched it more times than any Carpenter movie except Halloween.
 A nod to the nameless heroes of other pulp greats Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name, both of which we’ve discussed on the blog before.
 Fairey also designed former President Obama’s campaign poster “Hope.”
 Rodriquez is most famous for El Mariachi, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Machete, Sin City, and Spy Kids. While his films had more commercial success than Carpenter’s during their theatrical runs, they are also more like cult films than they are blockbusters. Side note: despite the flop status of his Planet Terror (half of the Grindhouse double feature he shared with Quentin Tarantino), I really loved it. But I also really loved the whole double-feature and the experience of seeing it in the theaters, and in that I appear to be in the minority. There’s no accounting for taste.