They Live is the most overtly political film John Carpenter ever made, and that’s saying something, as most of the director’s work touches on politics to some degree. Everything about They Live ties into our country’s political process and greed in one way or another. The film is about a literal kind of consumerism that has overtaken the planet. And nobody noticed. In the context of They Live, it’s an alien invasion. It sheds light on hierarchy and power, pointing out the corruption of society through the lens of science fiction.
Of course, this is ironic because They Live is about a man named Nada who discovers that he can put on special sunglasses and see the world the way it really is. At the beginning, he is trying, and failing, to just earn enough to keep a roof over his head. Still, he believes in the system. He believes in America. He believes that his break will come if he just waits long enough. Yet that break never does come, and Nada finds himself facing the grim truth before long. There’s a resistance movement among the poor and the homeless that know the truth about the world, who have designed special sunglasses so that the “uninitiated” can see things as they really are. As it turns out, everything is overrun by aliens who have integrated into society and formed the rich, elitist, capitalist Hollywood culture. All advertising is subliminal messaging that says “Obey” or “consume” or “marry and reproduce.” The point is not subtle, but Carpenter is definitely not going for subtlety here. His intent seemed to be to make the movie as outrageous as it could be and that is something that he definitely got away with.
Essentially, They Live is a weird, sci-fi action nightmare and works perfectly in that regard. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the 1980’s. Wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper shows off his acting chops, and proves that he has them. I could not see anyone else in the role. His charisma and tough-guy attitude are spot-on for the character. Keith David is a smart addition to the movie and he plays his character well, in fact he may be an even more identifiable character than the protagonist. He’s opposed to the system, he knows something is very wrong and it’s not getting any better, but he will do just about anything to not know why. This makes him an incredibly important part of the movie. When Nada presents him with the sunglasses, he fights him near-to-death not to wear them.
The point becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on too. Consumerism controls the planet to the point that everyone without sunglasses is considered asleep. They can’t see the world the way that it really is, they’ve been blinded to it. The upper class are where these aliens have made their home and where they have the most pull on the system. People serve them happily because they get to be rich, or famous, or both. There are no aliens in the lower class. The lower class is oblivious, being driven and exploited by the upper class. And while it’s only touched upon a few times in the film, that’s not too far off from how Hollywood culture really works. The elite control the poor.
They Live is a stylized, poignant underground masterpiece. It mixes action, horror and science fiction together seamlessly—although the latter is certainly the most crucial to the plot. Carpenter’s script, under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, is really where the success of the whole thing lies. It is so smart and so layered, but at the same time, it is so much fun. That’s the element that a lot of these movies always seem to leave out. It’s the best thing about it. It’s a smart film, it makes you think, but it invites you to have fun with it in a way that only John Carpenter can pull together. Yet the message is clear. In fact, it’s blatant, that’s a part of why it works. The overall themes of the movie work the same way as the sunglasses in the feature itself. Once you look at it, once you put the sunglasses on, everything that Carpenter is trying to say becomes clear.