They Live might in theory be described as a horror movie but it is a horror movie where the horror does not come from the monsters, from jagged fangs or grotesque features or hideous creatures leaping out at you in the dark. Instead They Live’s horror is social, it’s the shock of the knowledge that the world you have been living in is a lie. Long before the Matrix made you choose between pills and the grim reality of an enslaved humanity and the illusion of creature comforts, They Live offered the same choice embodied in a pair of sunglasses or a simple pirated TV broadcast. Yet They Live is devoid of the pretentious philosophizing and self-absorbed complexity, instead it is a fable as simple as that of George Owell’s Animal Farm wrapped up in a B Movie disguise.
Ever since Dark Star, John Carpenter has made his career with movies that are more than they appear to be, morality tales and political protest wrapped around the trappings of horror and hack science fiction. They Live was certainly his most explicitly political movie, a protest against a corporate culture that valued consumption above all else, that was squeezing out the American middle class to make way for another CEO pay hike and that treated people as eminently disposable. It sounds like the perfect way to drag a movie down but They Live is never didactic, it shows instead of telling.
Beginning with the arrival of John Nada (an unsubtle pun) played by Roddy Piper to Los Angeles, They Live pans around the grim visage of a recession where people sleep on the street while television commercials ooze promises of a luxurious lifestyle, showing a hard world where the traditional obligations of American democracy have come to mean very little indeed. They Live will certainly never go down as one of the more dialogue heavy movies around and the first third of They Live has minimialistic dialogue which only further deepens the sense of loneliness and the unnervingly detached atmosphere. And when there is speech, John Nada overhears far more than he says, a television commercial here, a black minister’s impromptu sidewalk address there and a mysterious pirate broadcast cutting in on the cable and warning of a secret war being fought with signals.
While the first time John Nada (Roddy Piper) dons the sunglasses to see the true reality of the world is the high point of They Live, it’s the journey he takes to get there as a stranger encountering for the first time the reality of a war being fought between a human resistance and an alien occupation beneath the quiet surface of the everyday world that keeps the suspense going and the audience committed right up to that shocking moment.
John Carpenter as always makes the best of a bad budget, using completely minor elements to unnerving effect. From the helicopter passing overhead to static on a TV screen to a recording of a choir joyfully pounding through an empty church while conspiracies are discussed behind thin walls, each one adds to the sense that something much bigger is afoot.
Of course when John Nada (Roddy Piper) does don the sunglasses what he sees makes even the Matrix’ reality seem tame by comparison as the real nature of the lives we lead is revealed. Beneath every sign and image we have so grown used to encountering in our day to day lives lies another message. Every advertisement and sign, vacant magazine article and logo is a subliminal message, controlling everyone. A billboard of a model advertising a tropical vacation hides a message commanding the sheep to “Marry and Reproduce”, advertisements and magazine articles urge their viewers and readers to “Stay Asleep” and “Watch TV” and every dollar bill proclaims, “This is Your god.”
The unnerving expedition beneath the skin of the world becomes only more unnerving when John Nada sees a wealthy businessman buying a paper but through the glasses, sees him as a gruesome skeletal figure. An inhuman creature. Wandering into a store where upper class to upper middle class shoppers are discussing their social lives, John Nada sees more of them all around. And soon the LAPD, consisting of officers no more human than the businessman arrive and a one man war begins.
They Live increasingly begins to falter at this point and coming off the high note of John Nada’s shotgun scene in the bank has nowhere to really go but down. Probably one of the most ludricious scenes follows as John Nada tries to force Frank Armitage, a fellow construction worker, to put on the sunglasses, resulting in a roughly ten minute fight in which John Nada is repeatedly beaten up only to attack Armitage all over again. There’s no comprehensible reason why this scene goes on for so long except that Roddy Piper and some combination of the movie’s producers wanted to show off his wrestling skills.
From there John Nada meets up with the remains of the resistance and a terrible storyline involving a television reporter who works in the station broadcasting the alien signal is unveiled to its dreadful conclusion. In between though, John Carpenter pulls off another surprise, transporting us to the alien headquarters, an underground series of cement tunnels where banquets are held for the human collaborators of the alien invaders and a transporters shoots travelers back and forth between Andromeda and Earth. Occasionally goofy, the tour still manages to capture the chilling nature of human collaboration with an alien occupation force far better than V ever did.
And while the ending is somewhat awkward, the final montage of humans discovering the aliens among them, summed up by a final graphic visual metaphor, stays with you even long after the movie is done. While originally conceived as a commentary on the Reagan era and the Wall Street culture of Gordon Gecko, They Live endures as more than a one shot act of political commentary but as the daring suggestion that humans and human behavior can be every bit as destructive and oppressive as any alien invasion can be.