In 1988, John Carpenter released one of his best films, a sci-fi action movie designed to comment on the sociopolitical landscape of the 1980s. Little did Carpenter know back then that the movie would only become more and more prescient over the next 30 years. Though released in 1988, They Live is a movie about right now.

I see a lot of people online complaining that they want their movies and their politics kept separate. I hope those people have never seen They Live. The two cannot be separated. The film, based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” is Carpenter’s shot across the bow: a howl of rage about the Lie of the American Dream disguised as a violent B-movie. To think that one can watch They Live—most movies, for that matter—divorced of any and all political context is to willfully ignore the message. It’s refusing to put the sunglasses on so as to not see the truth.

The late, great professional wrestler Roddy Piper, hand-picked by Carpenter to star, plays John Nada, a homeless drifter who arrives at a construction site in Los Angeles and finds work. He's befriended by another construction worker, Frank (Keith David), who brings Nada to a makeshift camp for the homeless. There, the people gather around a single black and white TV that keeps breaking up as a crazy man rants nonsensical, prophetic messages. A nearby church is holding what appears to be a non-stop choir rehearsal. Something is clearly going on, and Nada finally decides to investigate. All he finds is an empty building: the choir he’s heard turns out to be a recording, and there are boxes of sunglasses everywhere. Weird.

That night, the camp is raided by police and many of the homeless are executed. Nada escapes and goes back for the sunglasses, but when he puts them on, things look... different. Half the population is revealed to be an alien race, surrounded by propaganda commands like "OBEY" and "REPRODUCE" splayed across what appears to us humans as advertising. Aliens, it would appear, are secretly taking over the Earth by taking all the money and resources and oppressing those beneath them. So Nada picks up a gun, recruits Frank and a cable TV station employee played by Meg Foster, and starts making moves to expose the alien conspiracy and shut it down fast—to both chew bubblegum and kick ass.

Though intended as a savage critique of Reagan America in the 1980s, everything Carpenter says in They Live is still relevant today, only more so. The movie's portrayal of an America in which the 1% control all of the wealth and repress the rest of the country is basically accurate—at least in its biggest, broadest, most satirical strokes. The class divide has only grown greater since Carpenter made the movie 30 years ago, as have the methods by which the American people are distracted away from this disparity. We stream and we Snapchat and we fight over who gets to claim the scraps we are thrown while corporations grow larger and more powerful, politicians govern by profit, and the 1% continue to absorb more and more wealth. The aliens’ plan is working better than ever before.

So, how do we take back the planet? We talk about it and we post about it and we #Resist, but without any real power or representation, we’re shouting into the void. Carpenter shows it in They Live: the underground resistance that has formed at the camp spends their time planning and meeting and strategizing, but nothing changes. It takes John Nada to come along and get shit done for any real change to take place. That’s not to say that Carpenter is advocating taking up arms against those in power, of course; he just happens to be exploring these ideas within the framework of a kick-ass action movie. Besides, Nada is in the tradition of all the best Carpenter protagonists: like his greatest influence Howard Hawks, Carpenter’s heroes are men of action.

One of the movie's masterstrokes is that Carpenter avoids making Nada a jaded cynic from the start. He's not Snake Plissken or even R.J. MacReady. Despite the fact that he's homeless, despite the fact that he's wandering from place to place practically begging for a job, Nada believes that things will work out. He has been sold the American dream: he keeps working hard, the country will meet him halfway and he will be rewarded. It makes the betrayal by the country in which he placed such faith that much more powerful (though there are hints at Nada’s inner cynic when he says something along the lines of "It figures it would be something like this..."). We are living through a time when the lie has never been more obvious, when Americans vote against their own interests because they are promised something better if they do. The “better” never materializes, and while we wait, the aliens are able to seize more wealth, more power, more control.

The flip side of Nada’s optimism is the Keith David character, who simply doesn’t want to know. He doesn't want trouble. He doesn't want to get involved. He is, as so many are, willfully ignorant. In Nada and Frank, Carpenter creates two characters whose fundamental belief systems are what enables such a class disparity, or, more specific to They Live, an alien takeover: denial and ignorance. It’s only when both men are able to see past the illusion that they realize they want the same thing. The desire to fight back unites them. There are lessons to be learned there.

We can’t talk about They Live without talking about the scene for which the movie is most famous: the crazy long six-minute back alley fight scene. Yes, it is ridiculous. Yes, it is indulgent. But it’s often dismissed as “pointless,” and that’s just not true. There is a reason Carpenter lets it go on for as long as he does: to demonstrate the lengths some people will go to avoid knowing the truth. Think about the fight that Keith David puts up and just how hard he resists wearing the sunglasses. He refuses to see the world as it truly is, and wills every one of his defenses to protect himself from reality. This couldn’t be any more relevant in 2018, when the very ideas of objective truth and facts are under attack every single day. People will say and do anything to deny what is actually happening in the country. Carpenter’s genius is that he once again illustrates these concepts purely through action, so that a six-minute brawl takes the place of an ideological debate. Besides, if you're going to cast a guy who does elbow drops and suplexes for a living, you might as well have him do elbow drops and suplexes in your movie. Play to the strengths of your actors.

I’ve read theories that They Live is a “bad” B-movie on purpose, that the makeup and effects look deliberately cheap, that Carpenter made it quick and dirty and so it lacks the usual elegance of his other work. I’m not sure I’m on board with that assessment. I will agree that the film isn’t as formally sophisticated as several of his others, but sophistication isn’t what Carpenter is going after. Plenty of satire uses a scalpel; Carpenter is swinging a sledgehammer. The dialogue is sparse, as is the incredible Western-esque score composed, as usual, by Carpenter himself. John Nada himself is a blunt instrument. If the alien makeups are crude (and they are), it’s not because Carpenter wanted to make an intentionally bad or campy movie, but rather because they serve their purpose as is. To spend more time and money making them more creative or realistic would be to pull focus from what matters most in They Live.

Beyond its messaging, They Live is still just a great genre movie—part sci-fi, part western, part action, all Carpenter. Its legacy continues to loom large over pop culture: we still quote the dialogue 30 years later. The alley fight has been immortalized and parodied by South Park. The alien design and their use of subliminal messaging have become memes unto themselves. Most impressively, it’s yet another classic film from a director who made a lot of classic films, and stands alongside Halloween and The Thing as Carpenter’s best-known work. It’s a movie that, like the work of Paul Verhoeven, appeals to both our highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities—scathing social satire delivered via cool fights and tough guy dialogue. It chews bubblegum and kicks ass.


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  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on, and, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.