They Live screenshot

They Live (1988)

four stars

The upper class is actually an alien race secretly living among humans and controlling them through subliminal messages.


On the surface, John Carpenter's They Live has some similarities to The Thing, the director's greatest work from six years prior. Both films are about an alien presence living among the human race, using us as a means to their own end. What the eponymous "thing" represents is certainly open to interpretation, but Carpenter's intention with the ghouls in They Live is undeniably clear.

Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who's just looking to earn a paycheck for an honest day's work. When he finds a pair of special sunglasses, he discovers that the world is controlled by ghoulish aliens. They force humans to work hard, but they reap the rewards and control who gets ahead. Laughing at the absurdity and finally understanding the futility of his efforts in life, our hero decides to expose the evil overlords... or maybe take them all out himself.

They Live screenshot

They Live slaps viewers in the face and demands that they wake up. The world we live in may not have a secret race pulling the strings, but there is a very real gap between the upper and lower classes. Carpenter highlights the undervalued and undercompensated blue-collar, hardworking Americans. They are the backbone of the United States, the ones who make the country great; yet only the rich get richer, and the cattle stay asleep.

The film is not just a statement on the disappearing middle class in America, but a parody of the consumerism and excess of the 1980s. Commercials flash ads for beer and fashion while billboards and magazines use sex to sell soft drinks. But when viewed through the glasses, we're able to see the world as it is in plain black and white. Those commercials, billboards, and magazines teach us to CONFORM, SUBMIT, and OBEY.

Piper's character is Carpenter's overtly masculine, badass leading man, following in the footsteps of Kurt Russell's MacReady, Snake Plissken, and Jack Burton. Keith David's character is equally manly, and the two clash in They Live's centerpiece: an over-the-top fight scene that lasts for several awesome minutes. The two clash not because they're enemies, but because they're stubborn, and their battle ends with both men trusting and respecting the other even more. What could be more manly than that?