Writer/director/musician John Carpenter is arguably most famous for 1978’s “Halloween” and 1982’s “The Thing,” but in 1988 he crafted a clever social/political satire called “They Live,” that went largely unnoticed upon its initial release. I’ll admit, even I didn’t see the movie until I rented it on laserdisc (yes, I’m that old) sometime in the mid-1990s, but it’s stayed with me ever since.
Starring the late wrestling star Roddy “Rowdy” Piper (1954-2015), Keith David and Meg Foster, “They Live” has recently gained a cult following after years of relative obscurity. Not as suspenseful as Carpenter’s “Halloween,” or as atmospheric as “The Thing,” or even as stylish as “In the Mouth of Madness” (1994), “They Live” is a deceptively simple, blue-collar message movie that is smarter than it initially appears.
Offering heavy commentary and a big middle finger to mass consumerism, “They Live” might be one of the most overlooked and socially important mainstream movies of the 1980s…
The opening score, credited to Carpenter and Alan Howarth, opens with a bass guitar-harmonica theme that feels very 1980s, almost like the opening intro to TV’s “Roseanne.” This recurring theme is the heartbeat of the movie, much as Carpenter’s own “Tubular Bells”-inspired piano motif was for “Halloween.” Carpenter’s movies use music more as a pulse than a grand statement.
Into Los Angeles arrives former Colorado resident “Nada” (Roddy Piper), whose unspoken onscreen name literally means ‘nothing.’ Nada is a faceless nobody left behind by society. Arriving with everything he needs on his back, he checks the local unemployment office for work, but to no avail. By his own meager charms, he manages to secure a job on a construction site in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, where, through sheer tenacity, he befriends grudging cynic, Frank Armitage (Keith David). Taking pity on the big galoot, Frank leads newcomer Nada to his homeless camp downtown … mere spitting distance from the yuppie-filled skyscrapers of the LA skyline.
Note: One of the themes of “They Live” is wealth inequality, and many shots by cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe frame the homeless camp with the rising LA skyscrapers squarely in the background. Another moment sees Nada sitting outside by a trashcan fire, watching a TV through the window of a nearby house … a thin pane of glass being the only divider between a have and a have-not.
After a hard day’s work on the construction site, Frank and Nada return to their downtown tent city for free grub provided by a small Methodist church across the street. The blank-faced Nada takes note of the community’s colorful characters, including a bearded guy (George Buck Flower, from “Back to the Future”) whose sole ambition seems to be watching the camp’s dilapidated TV day and night. The TV’s mindless broadcasts are routinely disrupted by a pirate signal from a nearby resistance movement which desperately warns apathetic viewers about a force which was secretly taken over the world. This unseen force is keeping everyone hypnotized using a signal beamed at them from their TVs–even when they’re off. It all sounds like so much conspiracy theory nonsense–the kind of crap QAnon peddles today. Yet something about it rings true to Nada, especially when a blind preacher nearby (Raymond St. Jacques) seems to mouth the words of the pirate-signal broadcast verbatim. Nada also notices how viewers of the pirate signal get instant headaches when watching the resistance’s messages.
Note: Keith David’s character’s name, ‘Frank Armitage,’ is also the pen name used by John Carpenter for his own screenplay in the opening credits. Many significant characters in the film are (deliberately) not given proper names, including of course, the main character of Nada, who is meant to be an all-purpose, hardworking everyman.
Meeting with his newfound friend/coworker Frank, the two of them share a brief philosophical exchange. Frank is a cynic–a man who recognizes that the world is unfair and that the deck is stacked against him. Frank believes in “the golden rule; those with the gold make the rules.” He also intends to do whatever is necessary to hold onto his share of crumbs from the pie … including screwing over his friends, if need be. Nada sees the world differently. Still believing in the American dream, Nada assumes that hard work and opportunity will eventually pay off for him. The two amicably agree to disagree. As they bed down for the night in their respective tents and sleeping bags, Nada hears late-night choir music coming from the small church across the street…
The next day, Nada meets church leader Gilbert (Peter Jason, from “48 HRS” and “Alien Nation”), who smoothly deflects Nada’s questions about the late night ‘choir practice’ he heard. On his own initiative, Nada quietly (and not so quietly) snoops around inside the church. There, he learns that the choir music was pre-recorded, and was used as cover for the church’s real activities; the church appears to be a hub for some kind of anti-government resistance movement. Gilbert and the blind preacher, along with other members of their ‘flock,’ talk about their futile attempts to jam the government signal with their message. They also talk about mass distribution of their “Hoffman lenses.” During his impromptu investigation, Nada finds unmarked boxes of presumably important materials hidden in a storage space haphazardly concealed behind a wall. Later that night, helicopters buzz overhead as a SWAT team raids the church, while a demolition force of bulldozers unexpectedly razes the entire homeless camp–its residents sent running for their lives. With nothing but the clothes on his beefy back, Nada returns to the still smoldering church the next morning, and manages to steal a sealed box of the mysteriously coveted resistance materials…
Note: If you’re a fan of 1980s movies, Peter Jason’s face should be very familiar to you. The veteran character actor played a racist bartender in “48 HRS” (1982), a racist LAPD cop in “Alien Nation” (1988) and a gruff small-town football coach in “Arachnophobia” (1990). His other TV and movie credits run longer than my arm (see his IMDb page for details). “They Live” offered Jason the rare opportunity to play a good guy for a change.
Finding a back alleyway between skyscrapers, Nada hunkers down near a collection of trashcans and opens the box. Anticipating something very important (and possibly worth reward money), Nada is deeply disappointed when the box turns out to be filled with dark sunglasses. Stowing the box deep in a trash can, he takes a pair for himself as small reward for his trouble. Trying the sunglasses on, he is taken aback–these “Hoffman lenses” make everything appear monochromatic. As his eyes adjust, he notices that signs, billboards and even magazine covers instantly change into simple, bold-type words like “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY,” “STAY ASLEEP,” “CONFORM,” and (on a sexy billboard for a Caribbean vacation) “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” More disturbingly, select faces in the crowd instantly change into hideous, skull-and-muscle faced creatures with large glittery orbs for eyes. The world as we perceive it is a colorful illusion–the sunglasses allow Nada to see it in literal black and white.
Note: I don’t think anyone needs too many guesses at John Carpenter’s views on commercialism…
The movie quickly kicks into high gear as Nada walks into a nearby liquor store and notices a peculiar pattern; most of the well-to-do members of L.A’s social strata are the ones who seem to appear as the grotesquely-faced creatures. From a mink-coat wearing shopper to the suit-and-tie wearing yuppies–the rich are skinless monsters; their (literal) false faces suddenly ripped off. When Nada becomes incensed by the presence of these aliens in our midst, he starts hurling insults at the ugly creatures. In turn, the creatures begin speaking into their expensive watches and wrist jewelry, warning unseen controllers about the one “who can see us!” As Nada corners one of the hideous creatures, it touches its watch, and disappears right in front of his eyes!
Nada soon finds himself in a paranoid’s worst nightmare, as “they” are truly coming to get him. Running back into the city’s dark alleyways to avoid the authorities, Nada is corned by LAPD cops, who are actually more of the faceless aliens sent to offer him the choice of joining them instead. As they move to arrest the beefy construction worker, Nada head-bumps and disarms one of the cops. Taking the policeman’s pistol, Nada shoots several more. Grabbing handfuls of police weaponry, he stops as a terrified human cop appears. Refusing to kill his own kind, Nada tells the young cop to get lost. Noticing an alien drone spying overhead, Nada shouts, “Mama don’t like tattletales,” as he blasts the cloaked machine to bits.
Soon, Nada’s face is broadcast all over the city as a suspected cop killer…
Still carrying the shotgun and other police armament, Nada walks into a bank and immediately spots several aliens posing as bank officers, clients and even security guards. He then brazenly announces in what’s since become the movie’s most iconic line; “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Nada then shoots several of the aliens before by taking a human woman, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), as a hostage. They escape in her BMW as he sinks low into the passenger seat to avoid detection. Holly asks where they are going, and Nada “insists” she take him to her place. Pulling into her upscale home high in the hills, Nada carefully exits Holly’s car without rousing her neighbors’ suspicion by pretending to be her new boyfriend.
Note: Holly’s neighbors are the only overtly gay characters in the movie. The two, who are seen only briefly, are clear gay stereotypes, but the movie doesn’t make any other judgment regarding their sexuality. This moment is surprisingly matter-of-fact for 1988, when gay characters were usually just punchlines to cruel jokes.
With the armed Nada in her home, Holly and Nada try to make smalltalk, but he warns her not to lie to him. He asks about her work, and she tells him she works for the local TV station Cable 54. Nada remembers that Cable 54 was the network the resistance was trying to jam. In a futile attempt to win her sympathy, Nada tells Holly about the alien invaders, but quickly realizes how insane his story sounds when spoken aloud. A seemingly nervous Holly then asks Nada if she can go to the kitchen to get herself a drink. He reluctantly agrees, as she walks to the nearby kitchen. As Nada briefly turns to face the glass patio door, a quick-thinking Holly smashes a bottle of liquor across his head, which sends him flying through the shattered glass door, all the way to the bottom of the hill (movie physics–just go with it). Thinking she’s killed him, Holly then coolly contacts the police.
Note: I’m glad the movie avoided the ugly cliche of the captive falling in love with her captor (see: “Beauty and the Beast” and a million other such movies). Love at gunpoint isn’t love– it’s Stockholm Syndrome. Admittedly, Holly is later revealed to be a villain, but Nada isn’t so pure, either. Deliberately choosing to terrorize an innocent bystander with a gun is never heroic, under any circumstances, let alone with a member of your own species.
Landing at the base of the hill, with only soreness and a few minor glass cuts, Nada makes his way back to the alleyway where he stowed the box of glasses in a trashcan, only to realize a garbage truck just emptied the cans. Opening the rear hatch of the truck and climbing aboard, Nada comically sifts through the refuse and finds the box of sunglasses. He walks a few feet before he’s stopped by the voice of Frank, who offers his fugitive friend his rightful week’s pay from the construction job. Nada demands that Frank put on the sunglasses. Frank refuses, thinking Nada’s lost his mind. When Nada tries to force Frank to put on the sunglasses, Frank fights back. What follows is quite possibly the best street brawl committed to film since “The Godfather,” when Sonny Corleone (James Caan) brutally kicks the ass of singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) for beating his kid sister (Talia Shire). The knockdown drag-out brawl of “They Live” goes on for a full six minutes of screen time, before an exhausted, bloodied Nada finally sticks the sunglasses onto the barely conscious face of Frank…
With the glasses on, Frank awakens and sees exactly what Nada saw when he first donned the shades; the black & white world as it really is–a world filled with nonstop alien indoctrination, calling on gullible humans to “buy, sleep, yield, obey, conform, consume,” et al.
Note: I’m not a big fan of violence for it’s own sake, but the protracted street brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David is extremely well done. It’s gritty, dirty, street-level stuff, and not overly stylized. Yes, stunt doubles were no doubt used for some of the more extreme maneuvers, but in a number of medium shots you can clearly see it’s the two actors doing the moves. Not surprisingly, WWE veteran “Rowdy” Roddy Piper manages to use a few wrestling moves as well.
Making a believer out of Frank, the two of them check into a local slum hotel to regroup and plan their next course of action. Nada also warns Frank not to wear the glasses for too long, as they cause headaches. Alone in the hotel, a dispirited Frank is unsure how to proceed. Nada then relates a painful story of growing up as a physically abused child at the hands of his cruel father. This memory of abuse is what fuels his current hatred for the aliens who’ve taken over Earth. Nada sees them as parental overlords who are trying to control him, very much like his domineering, abusive father. Nada warns, “I ain’t daddy’s little boy anymore.”
Note: I hardly expected Nada to have a heartfelt backstory of child abuse, but it makes sense with regards to his deep well of untapped rage. The late Roddy Piper is sort of a poor man’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film, yet he delivers the goods. Piper is not the most expressive actor, particularly when paired with the extraordinary Keith David, but that actually works to the movie’s benefit, since “Nada” (“nothing”) is supposed to be a literal ‘man with no name’–a blank slate. That element of the character would be lost if played by someone more charismatic, like Kurt Russell or Sylvester Stallone. In retrospect, Piper was keenly well cast.
Realizing their next move is to contact any surviving members of the church resistance from the homeless camp, they manage to meet with fellow fugitive Gilbert, who invites them to a meeting of their underground movement. Once there, Nada and Frank are given new Hoffman contact lenses, which allow them to see the aliens, but without the pain and disorientation of longterm sunglass usage. During the meeting, Gilbert tells the attendees that the aliens’ aim is to alter the climate of Earth to be more like their own–hence, global warming. The aliens view our planet the way Colonial Britain saw spice-rich India, and the way the United States currently sees oil-rich countries of the Middle East. Nada then notices Holly at the meeting, and he apologizes to her for their violent first encounter. Holly in turn, apologizes for nearly killing him as well.
Note: Few 1980s sci-fi movies were addressing climate change, even in metaphor. One of the few that predicted global warming ahead of the rest was 1973’s “Soylent Green” which is set in the now current year of 2022.
Unfortunately, an LAPD SWAT team soon breaks up the meeting, indiscriminately shooting members of the cell. Holly somehow manages to escape, as do Frank and Nada, who stick together. With Holly safely out of harm’s way (conveniently, I might add), Frank and Nada are pinned down in an alleyway firefight with the SWAT team. Killing some of their alien attackers, Frank steals one of their watches, which also acts as a teleportation device–opening up spacetime tunnels from one part of the city to another. With no time to test the device, Nada accidentally opens a spacetime portal in the middle of the street, and the two jump into it…
Finding themselves in an underground tunnel, Nada and Frank realize they’re beneath the city. Noticing signage in an unknown language, they speculate this might be the aliens’ base of operations under Los Angeles. Hiding their weapons and composing themselves, Nada and Frank infiltrate a banquet dinner honoring humans who’ve chosen to collaborate with the aliens. These humans are aware of the aliens, and what they’re doing on Earth, yet they choose to cooperate with them in exchange for money, power, and “the good life.” At the banquet, they run intothe ‘bearded guy’ (George Buck Flower) from the homeless camp–only now he’s well-groomed, wearing an expensive tuxedo, and sipping champagne. The bearded man assumes Nada and Frank have sold out as well, and he takes his ‘friends’ on a tour of the underground facility, using his newfound clout to get his guests past security…
Note: Sharp-eyed “Back to the Future” fans might recognize the late George “Buck” Flower (1937-2004) as Hill Valley’s most famous homeless resident, the town drunk “Red,” who was seen in the first and second “Back to the Future” films, muttering the lines “Crazy drunk drivers,” and “Crazy drunk pedestrians.” No surprise that he was once again cast as a homeless person in “They Live,” as a character known only as “the bearded guy.” At least we get to see another dimension of the actor when he plays the ‘cleaned up’ version of the bearded guy.
The bearded guy shows the two all the benefits of membership, including a space teleportation system that can whisk privileged humans light-years away to vacations on other planets in other solar systems. The bearded guy then takes the two to the broadcast center of Cable 54; home of the omnipresent alien signal, which continually feeds false visual and auditory information to the ‘sleeping’ human population. The bearded guy is caught off-guard when Nada and Frank seize their moment and set off their smuggled grenades within the broadcast center. Seeing Holly at work within Cable 54’s offices, Nada and Frank take their ‘fellow resister’ with them. Hoping to destroy the alien’s main transmitter on the roof of the building, Nada climbs the rooftop access ladder with Frank and Holly following right behind him. Unfortunately, Holly reveals her true colors as she pulls her own pistol and shoots a distracted Frank in the head…
Note: Holly’s duplicity wasn’t exactly a surprise, even when I first rented “They Live” sometime back in the mid-1990s. How exactly did Holly escape the raid on the resistance cell? She was clearly in the SWAT team’s line of fire, yet she emerged unscathed. She was also the most likely person to have alerted the SWAT team in the first place, as we saw her coolly call the authorities after she sent Nada falling to his presumed death from her patio glass door. At any rate, Meg Foster is a very talented actress. I vividly remember her role as Hester Prynne in the 1979 TV miniseries adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary classic “The Scarlet Letter.”
Nada reaches the rooftop, and calls out for Frank. He’s answered by Holly, whose pistol is now trained on Nada. She tells him that Frank isn’t coming. The too-trusting Nada now realizes he’s been duped. With a helicopter SWAT team converging on his position, he then shoots Holly, and takes some gunfire himself before successfully firing his gun directly into the alien transmitter–which goes up in a shower of sparks. Dying on the rooftop, a defiant Nada gives a final middle fingered salute to the aliens as their brainwashing signal is finally destroyed.
Note: I realize the ‘grand finale’ of a rooftop transmitter being destroyed by a gun would hardly be a climax to action movie fans today, who are used to whole cities being destroyed or other universe-ending calamities for a film’s final moments. However, I appreciate the refreshingly smaller scale action of “They Live.” Perhaps it was necessitated by the film’s meager budget (roughly $3 million), but whatever the reason, I much prefer a sci-fi movie that has too many ideas squeezed into its running time instead of too many explosions.
We then cut to various shots around Los Angeles, as the aliens are outed to the general population. Several onlookers at a local bar stare in surprise as the guy they’re drinking with suddenly turns into a skull-faced monster. Various other quick-cut reaction shots show various people turning and screaming at the newfound monsters in their midst. The greatest punchline (and the movie’s only nudity) is saved for the very end, as a woman approaches orgasm with her partner, only to stop mid-act, realizing he’s ‘one of them’ as well. The confused alien simply says, “What’s wrong, baby?”
Note: Based on the 1963 Ray Nelson short story, “Eight O’ Clock in the Morning,” “They Live” ends just as the true revolution is beginning, with its many possible outcomes are left entirely up to the audience. In many ways, the story is very similar to the “The Matrix” movies, which also depict humanity in unwitting servitude to alien overlords through a largely artificial existence. However, John Carpenter’s “They Live” got there first, by eleven years. Just saying…
Summing It Up.
“They Live” is easily the most thematically ambitious of anything Carpenter has done, yet it moves along at a brisk pace, with more than enough action and humor to keep it from being pretentious or preachy. The cinematography by longtime Carpenter collaborator Gary B. Kibbe (1941-2020) also manages to get the job done without too many frills or excesses. “They Live” is more about messaging than wowing its audience with overly elaborate visuals–the saving grace of a lower budget.
John Carpenter’s “They Live” oozes with the sort of political satire not commonly found in too many mainstream 1980s action/sci-fi films. The alien conspiracy plot of the movie, which clearly takes aim at Reagan-era policies of unchecked corporate greed & consumerism, is every bit as relevant today, if not more so. In its brisk running time, “They Live” ties together the myriad issues of homelessness, the wealth gap, resource exploitation, colonialism, police states, climate change, and the responsibility of media. That’s an awful lot to say for a 93 minute sci-fi action flick starring a pro-wrestler.
You don’t need Hoffman lenses to thoroughly enjoy “They Live.”
He Lives! Meeting Keith David.
This past February, I attended a local convention in Ontario, California, called “CreepIEcon 2022” and one of the celebrity attendees I’d hope to meet and get an autograph from actor Keith David, who plays “Frank Armitage” in the film. I’ve been a fan of David’s from his many other credits, and I wanted to get his autograph on the first day of the two-day convention, but sadly, his appearance was delayed due to a cancelled flight. While he did arrive later in the evening, I couldn’t stay the entire evening, so I resolved to see him on the second day, and he was there, looking great, and very much alive … unlike his poor character of Frank.
Keith David’s long list of credits include 1982’s “The Thing” (also directed by “Halloween” director John Carpenter) and 1986’s Oliver Stone-directed Best Picture, “Platoon.” He’s also a much sought-after voice actor, who played “Dr. Facilier” in Disney’s 2009 animated film “The Princess and the Frog,” (another under-appreciated film) as well as the Cat in 2009’s “Coraline”. The actor has even tried his hand in comedies, playing Cameron Diaz’s stepfather in 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary.” I’ve been a fan of Keith David’s for a long time, and it was wonderful to finally meet him in person.
Where To Watch/Stay Safe.
“They Live” can be purchased/rented for streaming on ROW8, Vudu, Prime Video and YouTube (prices vary). The movie can also be purchased on DVD/Blu-Ray from Amazon.com, eBay and other video retailers (prices vary based on seller). With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous aggression ends sooner than later.
Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing. Please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections, though some states are reporting increasing case numbers as a result.
In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong.