Film / They Live
"They are our masters! They're all around you! All about you! Blinding us from the truth!"

Resistance Graffiti

They Live is a 1988 action movie directed by John Carpenter, and inspired by Ray Nelson's short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" and its comic book adaptation "Nada."

John Nada ("Rowdy" Roddy Piper) is a drifting construction worker who arrives in a new town, and finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that not only are aliens living among us, they have hidden subliminal messages urging humans to conform, consume and reproduce in all media. Nada sets out to make sense of what the sunglasses are showing him, leading to several action scenes, and an incredibly long fist-fight with Nada's construction worker friend, Frank (Keith David). Eventually, Frank and Nada find an underground movement set on exposing the aliens and freeing humanity, and join in their efforts.

While in the U.S. it's mainly considered another cheesy actioner from The '80s, the movie is an intriguing exercise in criticizing the Reaganomics and the deregulatory liberalism of the decade through one of its pet products: the (apparently) brainless action/scifi movie. In Europe, lots of critics have sung praises of this movie, often quoting the "put on the glasses" brawl between Rowdy and Keith as one of the best one-on-one physical duels ever committed to cinema and was parodied shot for shot in an episode of South Park and replicated (with Keith David As Himself) in Saints Row IV. The movie also sports that one particularly awesome line, which has been borrowed, quoted and subverted many times over, and was the inspiration for an Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode about a prankster who finds X-ray specs that allow him to see aliens living among humans.

The movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: It's based on a short story. A "true" adaptation would have made this a short film.
  • An Aesop: Rampant consumerism is very bad!
  • Author Tract: The film is an allegory for unrestrained capitalism and Reagan conservatism, specifically trickle-down economics. In behind-the-scenes interviews, Carpenter even refers to the aliens as "Republicans." Of his inspiration, he said, "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."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nada wins, but he and Frank both die. Though it gets sweeter when he flips them off before dying.
  • Black Dude Dies First: When the Resistance is raided, the Resistance's black armorer gets gunned down as soon as they enter. Frank is killed by Holly to reveal that she was working with the aliens all along.
  • Blind Seer: The blind priest, who is somehow able to relay the resistance's transmissions through speech.
  • Broken Masquerade: When the sunglasses are worn.
    Disguised Alien: We have one here that can see.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: This film was made by John Carpenter to criticize the effects of the Reagan Administration on American society in regard to the increase of materialism.
  • Chew Bubblegum: The Trope Maker. And it was an ad-lib.
    Nada: I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Some humans are secretly cooperating with the aliens, including Holly and the nameless bum.
  • Cool Shades: The sunglasses Nada gets that allow the wearer to see the aliens and their messages.
  • Creepy Blue Eyes: Par for the course whenever Meg Foster is cast. Perhaps they should have realized that Holly was The Mole after seeing those eyes..
  • The Cynic: Exemplified by Frank in a very well done exposition scene with Nada. Establishing Frank's pessimism, and Nada's hope for the future.
  • Defiant to the End: Nada goes out like a badass.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Used to indicate when Nada is seeing reality through the sunglasses.
  • Dirty Commies: What the police have been told La Résistance is.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything? / Take That!: Ronald Reagan's The '80s. The alien political ad even begins with the speaker talking about it being a "new morning in America," one of Reagan's most famous quotes.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: At the end, Nada is faced with the choice of joining the aliens or blowing up the transmitter, exposing them to the world at large. He decides "Fuck it", and blows it sky high, knowing full well that this will get him killed. After being shot, he still manages to flip the aliens off right before he dies.
  • The '80s: The film is a allegorical criticism of yuppie culture and Reagan economics of this era. The extra long fist fight was put in to deliberately avoid the invincible action hero that was so prevalent in the 80s.
  • Evil All Along: Holly.
  • Evil Is Visceral: Skinless blue aliens.
  • Flipping the Bird: Nada gives one right before the ending.
  • Gadget Watches: The aliens' wristwatches, which work as a communication device and as an emergency teleporter.
  • Gonk: The aliens, of course. Nada lampshades it in hilarious manner.
  • Graffiti of the Resistance: Nada finds graffiti reading 'They Live, We Sleep', referring to the Resistance's knowledge of aliens that rule over humanity.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm:
    • Holly forces Nada out of her house by hitting him in the head with a bottle and making him crash through a window.
    • Averted later during the brawl between Nada and Frank; Frank tries to break a bottle for an improvised sharp weapon, but it shatters completely.
  • Groin Attack: Nada does it to one of the two alien police officers he fights, and it occurs a few times during the back-alley fight between Frank and Nada.
  • The Hero Dies: Nada himself at the end. His sacrifice ends up saving the world however.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Nada himself destroys the alien transmitter to free mankind, knowing full well that he'll be shot and killed by the aliens in response.
  • Hostile Terraforming: The premise is that aliens are "turning our world into theirs". However, this was only speculation from one resistance member as to what their motives were, which the audience never actually does find out. It's also contradictory since they were capable of surviving on Earth anyway.
  • Homage: Carpenter has confirmed that Frank's last name, Armitage, is in honor of The Professor in H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror.
  • I Can Rule Alone: After he discovers the conspiracy, Nada is offered at least twice to join the aliens. However, both times they either don't mean it, or it's not really plausible. The two aliens disguised as cops are only saying it to get Nada to a quiet place where they can kill him, and Holly offering it at the end would never work out, since at this point Nada had already killed dozens of aliens and would obviously be killed in retaliation.
  • Invisible Aliens: The aliens broadcast a signal that makes them look human, and their messages look like ordinary billboards or pieces of paper.
  • Karma Houdini: The Homeless Drifter who becomes a collaborator for the aliens is last seen teleporting away and never gets any on-screen comeuppance. However. since the alien conspiracy is unmasked at the end, we can assume that the very best he can hope for is being returned to his life as a bum with no humans the wiser.
  • Kill 'em All: By the end of the film, Holly, Frank and Nada himself were dead.
  • Large Ham: Not much, but when the action kicks in Roddy Piper and Keith David can be quite funny.
  • Left Hanging: The masquerade is irretrievably broken, but now what? The aliens still hold the reigns of power and control the media, as well as some being romantically involved with humans.
  • Made of Iron: Nada. The sheer amount of damage he takes throughout the movie does little to slow him down. Granted, he is The Drifter.
  • Mass Hypnosis: The aliens use a TV station to broadcast a signal that keeps human beings from seeing the truth. They also use actual TV broadcasts to send specific messages.
  • The Mole: Holly, a member of Les Collaborateurs, becomes a mole in La Résistance.
  • No Name Given: The main character's name is never revealed in the film, as John Carpenter thought of him as an entirely anonymous manual laborer. He is credited as "Nada," which means "nothing" in Spanish.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Roddy Piper was primarily known for being a WWF member prior to this movie, with only a few TV movies and shows previously to his credit.
  • Overly Long Gag: The fight scene. An awesome gag, but still.
  • Platonic Cave: A partial example, in which radio signals are beamed into our brains, causing us to see things inaccurately.
  • Police Brutality: When the cops raid the homeless camp, they brutally beat people with no provocation in most cases, or use excessive force against the few who attempt to resist (including the minister, who's blind).
  • Properly Paranoid: Well, it plays straight the whole pot of conspiracy theories at once...
  • Rated M for Manly: The fight alone is worth it.
  • La Résistance: The human resistance against the aliens broadcasts anti-alien messages and produces earwear that pierces their disguises. Our heroes join it by the middle of the film.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Nada and Frank's fight, besides being a Subversion of the Invincible Hero trope, could also be considered as a metaphor for the difficulty in changing a person's ideology, and the inherit struggle people will go through to stay in their comfortable preexisting ideology.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Frank, mostly because he's just trying to stay out of trouble.
  • See-Thru Specs: The sunglasses allow anyone wearing them to see the aliens and subliminal messages.
    "Put the glasses on! PUT 'EM ON!"
  • Shout-Out:
    • One of Nada's earlier lines in the film is "I believe in America" - and if anything, it's more grimly ironic here than it was the first time...
    • The special sunglasses are called "Hoffman lenses", presumably named after anti-corporate activist Abbie Hoffman.
  • Surveillance Drone: Flying little drones that are invisible to regular people.
  • Take That, Critics!: The second-to-last shot; after the aliens' satellite is destroyed and reveals their true faces, the shot shows alien proxies for Siskel & Ebert who are criticizing violence in films by directors like George A. Romero and John Carpenter. This is almost certainly in good humor, since Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to champion Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and helped launch Carpenter's career.
  • Third World: Earth is one to the aliens.
  • Title Drop: Provided textually. Nada comes across some street graffiti stating "They Live. We Sleep." It refers to the aliens who are secretly ruling mankind.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Nada learns to use all kinds of firearms, evolving from a normal placeholder into a gunslinger.
  • Trashcan Bonfire: There are a number of these burning at night in the homeless camp where Nada finds shelter.
  • Use Your Head: When Nada tries to hit Frank on the groin, Frank blocks and he has to headbutt him instead.
  • Weirdness Censor: In the Chew Bubblegum scene, notice how the crowd is reacting not to the man with the shotgun bursting into the room, but his declaration of his lack of gum.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Nada, interestingly enough (in the beginning anyway).
  • Wrestler in All of Us: The famous fight ends with a suplex. Which is to be expected when one of the combatants is Roddy Piper.