Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Carpenter|
|Produced by||Larry Franco|
|Screenplay by||John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage)|
|Based on||"Eight O'Clock in the Morning"|
by Ray Nelson
|Cinematography||Gary B. Kibbe|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures (North America)|
Carolco Pictures (International)
|Box office||$13 million|
They Live is a 1988 American science-fiction action thriller film written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, and starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster. It follows an unnamed drifter[nb 1] who discovers through special sunglasses that the ruling class are aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media.
The film was a minor success at the time of its release, debuting #1 at the North American box office. It originally received negative reviews criticizing its social commentary, writing and acting. However, like other films of Carpenter, it later enjoyed a cult following and eventually became recognized as a largely underrated work. The film has also entered popular culture, and notably had a lasting impact on street art (particularly that of Shepard Fairey), while its near six-minute alley brawl between the protagonists makes appearances on all-time lists for best fight scenes.
A drifter, known as "John Nada", arrives in Los Angeles. While out on the street, he sees a street preacher warning that “they” have recruited the rich and powerful to control humanity. Nada takes a job on a construction site and befriends fellow construction worker Frank, who leads him to a shanty town soup kitchen and its leader, Gilbert.
That night, a hacker takes over television broadcasts, claiming that scientists had discovered signals that were enslaving the population and keeping them in a dream-like state, and that the only way to stop it is to shut off the signal at its source. Those watching the broadcast complain of headaches.
Nada secretly follows Gilbert and the street preacher into a nearby church, and discovers them meeting with a group that includes the hacker. He sees scientific equipment and cardboard boxes inside, and hears Gilbert worrying that the Hoffman lenses they made won’t be enough without "strong people" to help them. Nada is discovered by the blind preacher and escapes.
That night, the shantytown and church are destroyed in a police raid, and the hacker and preacher are surrounded and beaten by riot police. The following day, Nada retrieves one of the boxes from the church and takes a pair of sunglasses from it, hiding the rest in a trash can. Nada discovers that the sunglasses make the world appear black and white, but also reveal subliminal messages in the media to obey, consume, reproduce, and conform. The glasses also reveal that many people are actually aliens with skull-like faces.
When Nada mocks an alien woman at a supermarket, she alerts other aliens via a mysterious wristwatch. Nada leaves, but is confronted by two alien cops. He kills them and steals their weapons. Nada enters a bank, where he sees that several of the employees and customers are aliens. He murders several aliens with a shotgun and escapes by taking Cable 54 employee Holly Thompson hostage. At Holly’s home, Nada tries to get her try on the glasses, but she knocks him out, throws him out the window, and calls the police.
Nada returns to the alley and retrieves the box of sunglasses from a garbage truck. Frank meets Nada to give him his paycheck. Nada tries to get Frank to put on a pair of the glasses, but Frank thinks Nada is a murderer and wants nothing to do with him to protect his family. Frank and Nada get into a long brawl, after which Frank is too tired to prevent Nada from putting the sunglasses on him. After seeing the aliens and a flying saucer, Frank agrees to go into hiding with Nada.
Frank and Nada find Gilbert, who leads them to a meeting of the anti-alien movement. At the meeting, they are given contact lenses to replace the sunglasses, and learn that the aliens are using global warming to make their Earth more like their own planet, and are depleting the Earth’s resources for their own gain. They also learn that the aliens have been bribing humans to become collaborators, promoting them into positions of power. Holly arrives at the meeting, apologizing to Nada, with information on the source of the signal. However, the meeting is raided by police and everyone but Frank, Nada, and Holly are killed. Nada and Frank are cornered by police in an alley, but they accidentally activate an alien wristwatch, opening a portal that they escape through.
The portal takes them to the alien’s spaceport, where they discover a meeting of aliens and human collaborators, celebrating that the "terrorists" have been eliminated. They are approached by a former drifter, now a collaborator, who gives them a tour of the facility. He leads them to the basement of Cable 54, the source of the signal, which is protected by armed guards. Nada and Frank find Holly and fight their way to the transmitter on the roof, but Holly kills Frank, revealing that she is a collaborator. Nada kills Holly and destroys the transmitter, but is fatally wounded by aliens in a helicopter. Nada gives the aliens the middle finger as he dies.
With the transmitter destroyed, humans all over the world discover the aliens hiding among them.
The political elements of the film are derived from John 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, "The picture's premise is that the 'Reagan Revolution' is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it's a third world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they'll move on to another world... 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."[nb 2] 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."
Carpenter has rejected neo-Nazi and white supremacist claims that the film "is an allegory for Jewish control of the world," instead noting the film "is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism".
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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 & 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 comics anthology in 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.
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 Keith David.
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 million. 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 $4.8 million during its opening weekend. The film spent 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 (coincidentally, a sequel to a Carpenter film).
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an approval rating of 86% based on 63 reviews; the average rating is 7.2/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter." Metacritic gave the film a weighted average rating of 52 out of 100, based on 10 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
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 concept are explored only cursorily." Jay Carr, writing for The Boston Globe, said "[O]nce 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.
Rotten Tomatoes ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper's character, Nada, and Keith David's character, Frank Armitage, seventh on their list of "The 20 Greatest Fights [sic] Scenes Ever". The fight scene influenced The Wrestler, whose director, Darren Aronofsky, interpreted the scene as a spoof. Shepard Fairey credits the film as a major source of inspiration, sharing a similar logo to his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" 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."
Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down". He said, "It's a great movie...Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes...It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air." Lethem wrote a book-length homage to the movie for the Soft Skull Press Deep Focus series.
They Live is extensively referenced in the 2013 video game Saints Row IV; Keith David plays himself in a supporting role throughout the game, and a They Live-themed level towards the end of the game unlocks Roddy Piper as a combat ally.
Rock band Green Day paid homage to They Live in their music video for "Back in the USA", off of their album Greatest Hits: God's Favorite Band. Similarly, punk band Anti-Flag used the film as inspiration for their 2020 music video, The Disease.
The film is noted for a popularly quoted line spoken by Nada: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."
On November 6, 2012, Shout! Factory released a Collector's Edition of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Awards and honors
|Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award||Best Film||John Carpenter||Nominated|
|Saturn Award||Best Science Fiction Film||They Live||Nominated|
|Best Music||John Carpenter and Alan Howarth||Nominated|
In fall 2010, there was development on a remake of Carpenter's 1988 film They Live, with him in a producer role. In 2011, Matt Reeves signed on to direct and write the screenplay. Since then, there have been no new announcements: the movie is in development hell.
- The character is referred to as "Nada" in the film's credits, which is Spanish for "Nothing". "Nada" is also the name of a short comic book published in Alien Encounters in 1986, which, was adapted from the same short story as They Live.
- Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.
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