They Live

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
They Live
1988They Live poster300.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Carpenter
Produced byLarry Franco
Written byJohn Carpenter
(as Frank Armitage)
Based onEight O'Clock in the Morning
by Ray Nelson
StarringRoddy Piper
Keith David
Meg Foster
Raymond St. Jacques
Peter Jason
Sy Richardson
George 'Buck' Flower
Music byJohn Carpenter
Alan Howarth
CinematographyGary B. Kibbe
Edited byGib Jaffe
Frank E. Jimenez
Alive Films
Larry Franco Productions
Distributed byUniversal Studios
Release date
  • November 4, 1988 (1988-11-04)
Running time
93 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3,000,000 (estimated)
Box office$13,008,928

They Live is a 1988 American science fiction-horror film directed by John Carpenter, who also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Frank Armitage (this is also the name of one of the characters in the movie). Part science fiction horror and part dark comedy, the film echoed contemporary fears of a declining economy, within a culture of greed and conspicuous consumption common among Americans.

The film follows a nameless drifter referred to as "Nada", who discovers the ruling class within the moneyed elite are in fact aliens managing human social affairs through the use of a signal on top of the TV broadcast, concealing their appearance and subliminal messages in mass media.


A nameless unemployed drifter, referred to as "Nada" (Roddy Piper), finds construction work in Los Angeles and befriends fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who leads him to a local shantytown soup kitchen. There Nada notices strange activity around the church; a blind preacher rouses others to awaken, a police helicopter scouts them overhead and a homeless drifter (George Buck Flower) complains when the TV signal is continually interrupted by a bearded man informing about those in power. Nada discovers the church is a front: the choir is actually an audio recording next to scientific apparatus, while cardboard boxes fill the room. Nada finds another box hidden in the wall but escapes when the preacher catches him. At night, police bulldoze the shantytown and attack its fleeing inhabitants. Nada returns in the morning to find the church empty, but procures the untouched hidden box. At an alleyway he opens it to find it contains black sunglasses and takes a pair.

Nada discovers the sunglasses are special; looking through them he sees the reality of the bleak world. The media and advertising actually contain totalitarian commands of obedience and conformity in consumerism, to control an unwitting human population (in the case of paper money, it is shown to be a piece of paper with the words "THIS IS YOUR GOD"). Many with authority and wealth are actually humanoid aliens with grotesque skull-like faces. At a store Nada confronts an alien woman and she speaks into a wristwatch notifying others about him. Two alien police officers apprehend Nada but he kills them, taking their guns and going on a shooting spree against aliens in a bank, while one vanishes using its wristwatch. Nada escapes, destroying an alien flying camera and taking Cable 54 assistant director Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) hostage. At her hill-top home, Nada tries convincing her of the truth while suffering a headache from the glasses. Instead, Holly knocks him through her window and calls the police. Nada tumbles down and escapes, leaving his belongings behind.

Nada returns to the alleyway and saves the sunglasses box from a garbage truck. Frank meets him to hand him his wage, but wishes for no further involvement as Nada is now a wanted man. Nada is forced to fistfight Frank to make him wear the glasses. After he finally does, the two rent a hotel to discuss their predicament. Gilbert (Peter Jason), a member of the shantytown, notifies them about a secret meeting with other activists. There, Nada and Frank are given updated contact lenses to replace their glasses. They learn from the bearded man's broadcast that the aliens control Earth as their third world, causing global warming as they deplete its resources before moving onto other planets. The aliens use a signal to camouflage themselves; destroying its source will allow everyone on Earth to see their true form. Frank is given an alien wristwatch, a complex radio and teleportation device. Holly appears, apparently joining the cause and apologizes to Nada. However the police attack the meeting, killing anyone in sight, while Nada and Frank are cornered fighting their way out. 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 Cable 54 station: the source of the signal. The collaborator escapes by teleporting as the two attack their way through the building to find the broadcaster on the roof, meeting Holly and taking her along. As Nada climbs to the signal broadcaster, disguised as a satellite dish, Holly kills Frank. Revealed to be a collaborator, she takes aim at Nada along with an alien police helicopter, persuading him to stop. Nada drops his gun, but then retrieves a hidden pistol from his sleeve and kills Holly. He then shoots and destroys the broadcaster before being killed by the aliens, giving them the finger as his last gesture. With the signal destroyed, humans discover the aliens in their midst.




The idea for They Live came from two sources: a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1960s, involving an alien invasion in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a story called "Nada" from the Alien Encounters comic book.[1] 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."[1] 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. 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 old 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."[1]

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 (Frank Armitage is a character in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror).[1] 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."[1]


After a budget of approximately three million dollars was raised, Carpenter began casting the film. 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."[1] 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."[1] 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.[1] One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-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."[1]

Viewers may also recognize the sensor/communicator devices used by some of the alien troops as the PKE meter (Ghost Tracker) prop from the Ghostbusters films.


When Frank takes Nada to a local shantytown for food and rest, the duo discuss their lives in the system. Much of the film echoes themes of mindless consumption, which is revealed to be engineered through the media and advertising.


Critical response

Although not an immediate commercial success, the critical consensus according to Rotten Tomatoes was that critics thought of the movie as "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi" and went on to call it "an underrated genre film from John Carpenter." Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 88%.[2] Metacritic, an aggregator of film critics ratings and reviews, gave the film a rating average of 50 out of 100[3]

In his review for the Boston Globe, Jay Carr wrote, "But 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".[4] 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".[5] Rick Groen, in his review for 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".[6] Allmovie contributor, Paul Brenner gave the film three and a half out of five stars.[7] 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".[8] Richard Harrington, in his review for the Washington Post wrote, "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".[9]

Box office

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.[10][11] However, the film's audience quickly dwindled and it spent only two weeks in the Top Ten.[12] The film had a total domestic gross of $13,008,928.[10] 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".[1]


The film was ranked #18 on Entertainment Weekly magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list.[13] 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".[14]

The fight between Jimmy and Timmy in the South Park episode "Cripple Fight" is almost a shot-for-shot recreation of the fight between Nada and Frank.[15]

When Nada enters the bank, he proclaims, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum." The line has become embedded in popular culture and is referenced regularly in the Duke Nukem series of video games by the main protagonist, a parody of 80s macho action heroes.[citation needed]

Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down," and wrote a book-length homage to it for Soft Skull Press's Deep Focus series.[16]

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 in a statement. “The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising.”[17]

Home Media Releases

On November 6, 2012 Shout! Factory released a Collector's Edition of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Swires, Steve (November 1988). "John Carpenter and the Invasion of the Yuppie Snatchers". Starlog. pp. 37–40, 43.
  2. ^ They Live (1988) Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes
  3. ^ They Live (1988) Movie Reviews - Metacritic. Accessed on 2 September 2012
  4. ^ Carr, Jay (November 4, 1988). "What if we're cattle for aliens?". Boston Globe.
  5. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "They Live". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2009-05-12.
  6. ^ Groen, Rick (November 5, 1988). "They Live". Globe and Mail.
  7. ^ Brenner, Paul. "They Live > Overview - Allmovie". Allmovie. Retrieved 13 December 2010.
  8. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 4, 1988). "A Pair of Sunglasses Reveals a World of Evil". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-12.
  9. ^ Harrington, Richard (November 5, 1988). "They Live". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-05-12.
  10. ^ a b IMDb Box Office/Business - They Live (1988)
  11. ^ "'They Live' tops the weekend's box office". Sun Journal. 9 November 1988.
  12. ^ Box Ofice Mojo - They Love weekly box office data
  13. ^ "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83". Entertainment Weekly. September 3, 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-04.
  14. ^ Ryan, Tim. "ROTTEN TOMATOES: Total Recall: The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 13 December 2010.
  15. ^ Ott, Brian L. (2008). "The Pleasures of South Park An Experiment in Media Erotics". In Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew (ed.). Taking South Park Seriously. New York: SUNY Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-7914-7566-9. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  16. ^ Kachka, Boris. "Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter's They Live and His Own Move to California". Vulture. Retrieved 2012-07-29.
  17. ^ Shepard Fairey Interview

External links