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Film / They Live!

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

Resistance Graffiti

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

Nada ("Rowdy" Roddy Piper) is a drifting construction worker who arrives in Los Angeles and finds a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see that, not only are aliens living among us, they have hidden subliminal messages in all media urging humans to conform, consume, and reproduce. 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 it was initially recenived as another cheesy '80s actioner upon its release, They Live 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/sci-fi movie. In Europe, even at the time of its release, lots of critics 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; it was parodied shot for shot in an episode of South Park, and replicated (with Keith David and Roddy Piper as themselves) 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.

Iconiq Studios held a Kickstarter campaign in 2020 to fund The Board Game, They Live: Assault On Cable 54.

Put on the glasses and read these tropes.

  • Abusive Parents: Nada's father once threatened him with a straight razor.
  • Adaptation Expansion: It's based on a short story. A "true" adaptation would have made this a short film.
  • Adaptation Title Change: They Live is based on the short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" and inspired by its comic book adaptation "Nada."
  • Aliens Are Bastards: They transformed human society into a pyramid putting themselves at the very top and subjugated all positions of power as company executives, the government, police, military, and even movies and television. Towards the end it turns out they have human collaborators who helped make their invasion possible.
  • Alien Invasion: An invisible yet very effective one, in which rather than using military force the aliens subjugate humans financially and enslave them through consumerist propaganda.
  • An Aesop: Rampant consumerism is very bad!
  • Attentive Shade Lowering: When Nada first sees through his sunglasses that some people in the grocery store are aliens in disguise, he lowers them both in disbelief and to confirm the sight without the lens. He also pulls the expression on the poster seen above.
  • 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."
  • Badass Biker: One of them serves as a sentry at the resistance meeting and is last seen making a valiant effort to Hold the Line with his shotgun as the surviving members flee into the street.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Aliens are exposed, at the cost of Nada and Frank getting backstabbed and dying. At least Nada gets to flip them off as the plot's exposed.
  • Boldly Coming: an unintentional version. During a montage of scenes showing people waking up from the illusion and finally seeing the aliens, we see a nubile woman enthusiastically riding someone. When she looks down, she sees he's an alien himself. Smash to Black before we see her reaction.
  • Black Dude Dies First:
    • When the Resistance is raided, the Resistance's black armorer gets gunned down as soon as they enter.
    • Downplayed because he makes it to the film's last five minutes, but 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.
  • Bread and Circuses: The aliens are using commercialism, movies, TV, the print and coupons to drown out the humans' sense of need to question and overthrow authority.
  • Broken Masquerade: When the sunglasses are worn.
    Disguised Alien: We have one here that can see.
  • Brutal Brawl: Nada confronts his coworker Frank in an alley following Nada's apparent killing spree. Frank is... less than receptive to his attempt to explain. What follows is six minutes of punching, screaming, headbutts, a vicious Groin Attack, and attempted Grievous Bottley Harm.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: The film depicts the capitalist class as literal parasitic aliens. The aliens themselves are ultra-rich and very capitalistic on their homeworld.
  • Chew Bubblegum: The Trope Maker. And it was an ad-lib. invoked
    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.
  • Clueless Aesop: The conspiracy is controlled entirely by a foreign race masked as natives, which makes it easy to see the film's message as more xenophobic than anti-consumerist. Neo-Nazis have latched onto this as vindication of their beliefs as to who's to blame for American sociopolitical corruption, much to John Carpenter's chagrin.
  • 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, flipping the bird after wrecking the aliens' masking equipment.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Used to indicate when Nada is seeing reality through the sunglasses.
  • Dented Iron: Nada and Frank are big and tough men but after their fight scene (and especially Nada who got the hell kicked out of him in various ways before it) they spend the next couple of scenes barely able to stand and wield multiple bruises and even limp occasionally for the rest of the film, even after spending what is supposed to be a few In-Universe days getting themselves fixed. This was deliberately invoked by Carpenter to toss the "Invincible Hero" action cliche out the window.
  • Dirty Commies: What the police have been told La Résistance is.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: 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.
  • The Drifter: Nada is just wandering through Los Angeles, looking for work where ever he can find it.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: After surviving multiple shootouts and acts of Police Brutality courtesy of the aliens, even mowing many of them down, Frank gets a sudden Boom, Headshot! from behind by Holly to showcase she's been Evil All Along.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Nada immediately wants to protect Holly, even after she throws him out of a window and smashes a bottle over his head (which admittedly does appear pretty justified in the circumstances). It backfires. She's working with the enemy, and she kills Frank directly and Nada indirectly.
  • 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 an 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. She's human, but The Quisling. It was a Contrived Coincidence that Nada grabbed her as a hostage early on and his rambling made him look crazy enough that her smashing a bottle on the back of his head and tossing him out a window looked understandable.
  • Evil Is Visceral: Skinless blue aliens. Given the film's title, you'd be forgiven for assuming they were zombies rather than extraterrestrials.
  • Flipping the Bird: Nada gives one right before the ending.
  • Foreshadowing: Holly seems to be emotionless and is always calm given how bad the situations are.
    • She also lives in a very nice house with expensive furniture. The movie first hints at, and later clearly establishes that rich humans are collaborators to the alien invaders.
  • Gadget Watches: The aliens' wristwatches, which work as a communication device and an emergency teleporter.
  • Goggles Do Something Unusual: The glasses Nada finds show the true identity of the aliens.
  • Gonk: The aliens, of course. Nada lampshades it in a hilarious manner.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Downplayed. Nada doesn't have a traditional Freak Out, exactly, but how else to describe going from petrified shock, to laughing ("It figures it'd be something like this"), to picking up a shotgun and shooting them on sight?
  • Go Out with a Smile: The last we see of Nada before we cut away is him using his last breaths to flip off the aliens that shot him with a smile on his face.
  • Graffiti of the Resistance: Nada finds graffiti reading 'They Live, We Sleep', referring to the Resistance's knowledge of aliens that rule over humanity.
  • Greed: It describes not only the aliens, but also the rich people who sold out the futures of their own species to the aliens as a business opportunity. John Carpenter states this movie expresses his pessimistic views on economic inequality, consumerism, commercialism, and television being used as a propaganda tool encouraging people to spend their hard-earned but meager income on goods and services they don't really need.
  • 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, though.
  • 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. It could also have been figurative, as the aliens are secretly running society.
  • Homage: Carpenter has confirmed that Frank's last name, Armitage, is in honor of The Professor in H. P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The end of the movie shows us that elite rich humans collaborated with the aliens and played a crucial role in enabling the aliens' plot to crank laborious workers and beautiful women out of their own species. In the climax, Nada's final opponent is Holly, a human woman who turns out to be a collaborator.
  • 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.
  • I Knew It!: Invoked verbatim with Nada's reaction to a high ranked Republican being an alien.
  • 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.
  • Large Ham: Not much, but when the action kicks in, Roddy Piper and Keith David can be quite funny, and quite loud. Come on, as if you could stop Roddy Piper from being a little hammy.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: An unwitting viewer could make it over a third of the way into the movie before anything supernatural is revealed. A shocking twist if done so, but who watches this movie unaware It Was His Sled?
  • 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.
  • Little Useless Gun: Averted. After running around over most of the film wielding one Hand Cannon or another, the gun Nada uses to destroy the aliens' equipment and blow Holly away is a teeny-tiny Beretta Jetfire (.25 ACP) that is small enough he was able to conceal it up his sleeve with ease.
  • Made of Explodium: The aliens build pretty unstable transmitters; a few .25 bullets and it goes up in multiple explosions.
  • 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.
  • Mars Needs Women: The aliens put up signs telling us to "Marry and reproduce", but doesn't necessarily have to mean our own species. At the end we see a naked human woman getting it on with an alien male.
  • 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.
  • Moral Myopia: According to Frank, pulling a Groin Attack on someone who can fight back is the act of a "dirty motherfucker". One minute later, he's got Nada pinned to the ground and repeatedly slamming his knee into Nada's balls.
  • 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 in the WWF prior to this movie, with only a handful of roles to his credit, in two of which he was also playing a wrestler.
  • Obviously Evil: How Nada doesn't see through Holly is anyone's guess.
  • Oh, Crap!: After Nada puts on the special sunglasses that allow him to see reality clearly, he looks at a man and sees not a man, but an alien in disguise. His silent, stunned reaction says exactly what he is thinking at that moment.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: They are aliens that just happen to look like zombies and are referred to as "Ghouls" in the movie's end credits roll. According to John Carpenter, this was very intentional: The aliens are corrupting human society, and their appearance is likewise that of a physically corrupted human. invoked
  • 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 Are Useless: The police aren't reliable for protection for anyone who's lower class or middle class, as it turns out the police are either aliens, or humans on the aliens' payroll.
  • 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).
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: One of the most famous in movie history. Bonus points for having been an ad lib.
    "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."
  • Properly Paranoid: Well, it plays straight the whole pot of conspiracy theories at once…
  • The Quisling: The Homeless Drifter and Holly have both sold out mankind to the aliens for the sake of riches.
  • Rated M for Manly: The fight alone is worth it.
  • La Résistance: The human resistance against the aliens broadcasts anti-alien messages and produces eyewear 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 inherent struggle people will go through to stay in their comfortable preexisting ideology.
  • Science Is Good: While the villains of the film certainly have advanced technology, it's notable that the underground resistance was explicitly launched by scientists who accidentally discovered the aliens' signal. It's also these scientists who figured out how to make the "Hoffman lenses" that allow the protagonists to see through the aliens' disguises; they also constructed equipment to try and hack the alien signal in order to tell people the truth, although they never completely succeed (as their transmitter wasn't powerful enough). Thus, while the film critiques modern society's consumerism and greed, modern science and technology still seems to be cast in a positive light.
  • 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!"
  • Shadow Government: The Alien Invasion essentially became a corporate takeover of the planet, the aliens having enslaved humanity under crony-capitalism.
  • Shout-Out:
    • A group of shanty town residents watch The Monolith Monsters on a TV.
    • 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. Or maybe even the inventor of LSD, Albert Hofmann.
  • Stealth Pun: The film ends on a shot of an alien being revealed mid-coitus with a woman: a symbol of corrupt and corruptive greed literally fucking the human race.
  • Storefront Television Display: The protagonist passes a TV display that shows his picture, now the target of a manhunt following his shooting spree in a department store (don't worry, the victims weren't exactly human).
  • Suplex Finisher: How the famous alley fight between Nada and Frank ends. A gutwrench suplex to be specific.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The resistance movement is largely made up of homeless people and blue-collar workers, ordinary people with no real combat training. Every time they face the superior numbers and weaponry of the aliens' shock troops, it ends with the rebels getting curbstomped.
  • Surveillance Drone: Flying little drones that are invisible to regular people.
  • Technology Marches On: In-Universe. The resistance's True Sight lenses, which start the whole plot, are mass-produced early on as huge and easily-noticeable sunglasses (which eventually draw the aliens' attention and also have the problem that wearing them too long causes headaches and eye irritation). By the third act, the resistance has managed to figure out how to make them as contact lenses and remove the side-effects.
  • 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. Plus, they were the only critics who had achieved Pop Culture Osmosis at the time.
  • 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.
  • The Unmasqued World: After Nada destroys the satellite dish, all of the aliens are exposed — leading to the hilarious closing "What's wrong, baby?"
    Alien: I've got one here who can see.
  • Use Your Head: When Nada tries to hit Frank in the groin, Frank blocks and he has to headbutt him instead.
  • Voice of the Resistance: The bearded man who keeps hacking into TV broadcasts and trying to explain what the aliens are doing to the world, and a blind Badass Preacher who goes on in a similar vein in public parks.
  • Wham Shot: When Nada first puts the glasses on, he can see reality for what it really is; a world filled with subliminal messages, everywhere. This doesn't seem so bad, until he looks at another person and sees a skeletal, inhuman face looking back at him.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The fates of the two Voice of the Resistance characters are a bit murky. Both are captured and viciously beaten by the police when they raid the homeless encampment, but another one of the bearded man's broadcasts is seen later, implying that either he’d left recordings with the others or somehow escaped.
    • The Badass Biker guarding the door at the resistance meeting is last seen firing at the police from cover as they advance forward and it's unclear whether he (or various others seen scattered throughout the street) were killed, captured, surrendered, or escaped.
    • When Frank and Nada retreat down the alleyway, there are several other rebels ahead of them. Most of those men are gunned down, but one (played by Al Leong) seemed to make it around the corner ahead of Frank and Nada, yet there is no sign of him when they retreat down that corner themselves (guns blazing) and reach an apparent dead end with no sign of how he could have escaped.
  • "What Now?" Ending: The movie ends at the point where all humans can now see through the aliens' disguises. It's up to you to decide what happens after that.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Nada, interestingly enough (in the beginning anyway).
  • Wrestling Psychology: Part of what makes the legendary fight so effective is that the blows Nada takes really look like they hurt, something in which he was no doubt aided by the fact that his actor's primary job was faking injuries for a living.
  • 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.

"Hey, what's wrong, baby?"


Video Example(s):


They Live (trope namer)

Ad libbed by Roddy "The Rod" Piper (played Nada) in "They Live" (1988).

How well does it match the trope?

5 (33 votes)

Example of:

Main / ChewBubblegum

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