They Live (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I came here to chew bubble gum and kick some ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum.

 -- Rowdy Roddy Piper as Nada in They Live

One of the most fascinating topics for movie buffs is the body of films upon which people simply cannot agree. The most famous example, as brought into the spotlight by an episode of Seinfeld, is The English Patient, which is both one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled films ever made, and about which its supporters and detractors cannot even find common ground for argument.

They Live is in the same category. The entire debate may place this movie on a lower overall level than The English Patient, but the gap between its defenders and detractors is similarly wide. On the one hand, it is covered by many of the most popular web sites that specialize in awful movies: Bad Movie Night; Oh, the Humanity, It's a Bad Bad Bad Bad Movie; etc. On the other hand, Rotten Tomatoes shows that 93% of mainstream critics gave They Live a positive review - a higher rating than Fargo, The Lion King, The English Patient, The Usual Suspects, or the Oscar-winning all time box office champ, Titanic.

There you have it. A film in the same company as Fargo and The Usual Suspects which is also in the same company as Plan 9 and Godzilla vs Mothra. How can that be?

Two reasons:

1. It is a film with great concepts and bad execution. Your opinion of the film will depend on how heavily you weigh each of those components. If you like a cerebral and thought-provoking movie, with the kind of incisive social commentary that only the best S/F can provide, you'll find that this movie is on the ball. On the other hand, you'll find it very much off the ball if you are bothered by bad acting, cheap effects, silly-looking aliens, and a pointless seven minute fist-fight that drags the film to a complete halt. (You can't even get emotionally involved in the fight- it's between the two good guys!) If you walked past the TV while this movie was on and caught a minute of it, your impression would be that it was a hopeless cheesefest.

2. It is a film with a controversial, highly political point of view. If you agree with that point of view, you'll probably love it. If you are offended by that point of view, you'll fall back on the fact that it has poor production values, and dump on it.

They Live is fundamentally a low-budget version of The Matrix, without the spiritual/mystical elements.

In The Matrix, a bunch of machines are enslaving humans without their knowledge, by placing them all in a permanent dream-state and letting them live out a contented but delusional life inside a machine-induced computer program. A small group of humans finds out about the deception and battles the machines.

In They Live, a bunch of aliens are enslaving humans without their knowledge, by placing them all in a permanent dream-state and letting them live out a contented but delusional life inside a machine-induced form of mass hypnosis and subliminal suggestion. A small group of humans finds out about the deception and battles the aliens.

They Live doesn't start out as a science fiction film at all. In fact, the beginning of the film most resembles Bound for Glory, the Woody Guthrie biopic, updated to the 80s. A jobless, homeless drifter named Nada grabs a freight train, disembarks in Los Angeles, and tries to make himself a new life. He gets a construction job, and sleeps temporarily in a squatter's camp filled with other homeless people. They discuss the hard economic times, but many still have faith in their country, and their ability to rebuild a new life. In the evening, the homeless man gets near the crowd around the burning fires, plays his harmonica, listens to people talk, and thinks.

Slowly, he becomes perplexed by a church near his Hooverville. He hears the choir rehearsing until four in the morning, and sees people skulking in and out mysteriously. Overcome by his curiosity, he creeps into the basement, only to find that there is no choir at all, just a tape recording of people singing hymns. There is nothing of significance in the Church basement except boxes and boxes of sunglasses.

It turns out that the sunglasses are de-cloaking devices invented by the human underground. When Nada puts on the glasses, the wave-induced hypnosis no longer works on him, and he can see things as they are. TV, magazines, and advertising are all seen as facades - clever artifices designed to carry subliminal messages to humans. "Work hard, don't complain", "Marry and Reproduce", "Obey", "Be happy with what you have". More important than that, Nada realizes that not all humans are human. A small but powerful minority consists of aliens with faces that resemble stripped skulls. The aliens use their mass-hypnosis device to blend in with humans. Without the anti-hypnotic glasses, aliens and humans look alike.

The brilliant element of the film is that it presents the alien colonization of Earth in a manner completely consistent with actual human colonization in the past. The aliens are not presented as murderous or barbaric. They are not significantly different from humans, except in appearance, and even in appearance they are essentially humans without facial skin. They are simply doing to Earth what the English did to much of the world in its Imperial days - viewing a new territory as an opportunity for economic expansion. The Aliens do not use any more force than any human colonials ever used force to subdue native populations. In fact, in comparison to humans, they actually tend to rely less on force and more on persuasion or deception. Aided by human collaborators, they gradually get all the best jobs and the biggest fortunes on our planet, and they allow the unenlightened humans to continue functioning in their everyday lives, creating the wealth that the aliens and collaborators exploit. In essence, the aliens are absolutely no different from any class of plutocrats which has come to dominate any human society for their own benefit, except that they happen to be from another planet instead of another country. One of the more controversial elements of the film is that Ronald Reagan, with his simple, optimistic bromides, was actually revealed to be one of the aliens!

The part of Nada - how's that for a name you can drop in your Existentialist Literature course? It means "nothing" in Spanish - is played by the famous wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Hot Rod had a strange movie career. In his first important part, he was engagingly befuddled and angry in one of my favorite bad movies, Hell Comes to Frogtown. He followed that up with his role as Nada in They Live. He was well on his way to making a solid career as a B-movie anti-hero with real humanity, kind of a Joe Lunchpail version of Snake Plisskin. But it never happened. Those two roles were basically his career. Since then he has taken increasingly smaller, ever less colorful roles in increasingly worse movies. 15 years have slid by, and he is no longer famous as a wrestler or an actor. I liked the guy in both of his careers. He wasn't a good wrestler technically, and he had one of the puniest bodies in that profession, but he was one my favorite wrestling stars ever. He was able to demonstrate completely uncontrolled anger as a heel, and become one of the greatest fan favorites when he converted his energy to righteous anger and became a babyface. The great thing about Piper's transition to the role of fan favorite was that he never really compromised his obnoxious, angry personality. He didn't try to become Mr. Dignified and Soft-Spoken. He just seethed about things the fans hated. His acting career was similar to his wrestling career. He didn't have much talent, and in a way he couldn't act worth beans. Yet I really enjoyed the hell out of his performances in the two movies I mentioned. As in wrestling, he overcame a lack of talent with some kind of crazy anti-charisma.

Grossing $13 million on a $4 million budget, They Live made money and developed a solid cult following, but never spurred a sequel. I don't know why. Because of the way the film ended, it could have generated a beautiful sequel, although the sequel would have been a very different film, because Nada was dead, and the hypnosis machine had been broken, so humans were able to see the aliens as they really were. But, hell, wouldn't you like to see how that played out? Might make for a great little war. Not only would I go to a sequel, but I would go to a big-budget re-make of They Live. I'd love to see what Ridley Scott or Spielberg or Cameron could do with the concept, keeping all the good things about the film, eliminating the dead spots, and making the effects believable.


The only nudity comes in the last thirty seconds of the film, when the hypnosis machine is destroyed and Cibby Danyla (topless) sees that she is making love to an alien.

DVD info from Amazon

  • it is a good transfer, anamorphic 2.35:1

  • no features

Writer/director John Carpenter took the basic concept of They Live from a very short story (five pages) called Eight O'Clock in the Morning by an obscure S/F writer named Ray Nelson. To avoid paying an outrageous price, Carpenter bought the rights under an assumed name.

The internet being what it is, and the story being as short as it is, you can real the entire thing online in five or ten minutes, if you've a mind to. Here it is.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 6.4/10 - one of the highest rated B movies.
  • It was budgeted at a modest $4 million for production. It grossed about $30 million.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Both cheesy and brilliant, sometimes at the same time, it is a cult favorite, and a movie I would love to see remade with a real budget.

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