I sat down here to write a movie review and chew bubblegum. And I’m all out of bubblegum.
Writer: Ray Nelson (short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”), John Carpenter (screenplay) (as Frank Armitage)
Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Release Date: November 4, 1988
Runtime: 1h, 34m
The movie begins next to a rail line. Roddy Piper’s down-on-his-luck looking character is walking, wearing a camping bag on his bag. He walks from the rail line right into Los Angeles.
He interviews with an older woman for employment. He tells her that his last place of employment was in Denver, Colorado, and that he was laid off. She tells him that there is nothing for him right now. He reacts calmly, as though that is what he expected to hear. A few minutes later we see him outside, camping bag on, walking down the street again. He comes across a street preacher talking to a small group of people about the evils of greed. As the man is talking about the masters and owners of the human race, we see a police officer arrive. Roddy Piper’s character walks away.
That night he is still walking through the city. We see a man staring blankly at a store window filled with TV screens. But he walks past. He sees another TV through the window of someone’s home. A woman on the TV talks about how watching TV removes her concerns about the world around her. He finds a place in the city to camp for the night.
The next day, he walks up on a construction site and asks the foreman if he needs anyone. He tells the foreman that he has his own tools. The foreman tells him this is a union job so he asks to speak with the shop steward. After a pause he says “sir.”
A moment later he is hard at work on the construction site. At the end of the work day, the foreman tells him that he is not allowed to sleep on the job site. Our main character asks when he will be paid and is told “Thursday.” A moment later, Frank (Keith David) offers to show him where a local shelter is that has hot food and showers. Nada (Roddy Piper) blows him off. However, then he follows him. Frank stops and tells Nada he doesn’t like being followed. They walk together. When they arrive, Frank introduces Nada to Gilbert who asks about whether or not Nada has tools in his pack. Nada says he does and Gilbert says that they can use him because a shower needs to be fixed. Frank takes Nada to get food first.
The two men go through a food line and talk. Frank tells Nada that he has a wife and two kids in Detroit that he has not seen in six months.
Frank: The steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. You know what they gave themselves? Raises. The golden rule… he who has the gold makes the rules.
Frank asks Nada how he is going to make it.
Nada: I deliver a hard day’s work for my money. I just want the chance. It’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody’s got their own hard times these days.
That night, Nada is walking through the homeless camp. A couple of other men are watching a TV. During a commercial about press-on fingernails, the TV cuts out and another man cuts through the temporary static.
Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep.
The movement was begun eight months ago by a small group of scientists who discovered quite by accident the signals being sent through… [static]
The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices. Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness. We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves, to others, we are focused only on our own gain…[static]
Please understand they are safe as long as they are not discovered. That is their primary method of survival. Keep us asleep. Keep us selfish. Keep us sedated.
The broadcast cuts back to what had been on before the interruption and the two men watching the TV say that this is the second time tonight that man has broken up their broadcast.
Nada sees that Gilbert takes the street preacher into a church across the street. The following morning, he sees Gilbert and tells him that choir practice ran late the night before. Gilbert says the church lets them use the kitchen.
N: At four in the morning?
G: We’re taking care of a lot of people here.
We see the homeless camp’s TV again and the signal interruption is still on-going.
They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery… [static]
Break their signal. Our transmitter is not powerful enough. The signal must be shut off at the source.
Gilbert watches the TV and runs back across the street once more to the church. Nada notices. He follows him across the street to the church. We hear a choir singing from outside the church.
♫Rock of ages cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee.♫
Nada sees a kitchen table in the rundown church with a lot of chemicals on it. On the kitchen wall, someone has painted “THEY LIVE. WE SLEEP.” In the choir room, Gilbert and some other men are discussing the fact that their signal continues to be jammed. Nada is snooping around. However, he turns and finds the street preacher behind him. The preacher puts his hands on Nada’s face. He asks to touch Nada’s hands, too. He notes that Nada is a working man. He asks Nada about joining the revolution and Nada says he has to go.
The preacher says “you’ll be back” as Nada leaves the building. Outside a helicopter is flying overhead.
Frank sees Nada leaving the church quickly. From a distance, he sees Nada talking to a young man and borrowing his binoculars. Frank approaches Nada as he watches the church from a distance. Frank tells him to leave it alone and Nada replies that their boy Gilbert is over there helping them. We can see the men who had been in the church quickly moving boxes out of the church and into a car. Nada tells Frank what he saw inside the church.
Frank: I got a job now and I plan on keeping it. I’m walking a white line all the time. I don’t bother nobody. Nobody bothers me. You better start doing the same!
Nada: White line’s in the middle of the road. That’s the worst place to drive.
That night, Nada is still watching the church from a distance. Abruptly he notices a helicopter flying low above the building and men fleeing from inside. Numerous police officers arrive on the scene at the church and raid the building. The people in the homeless camp, including both Frank and Nada, watch in amazement. A police SWAT team, as well as a bulldozer, drive through the homeless camp and send people running.
The bulldozer begins knocking down the homeless camp. Nada sees a group of officers beating up the bearded man who had been making the TV broadcasts as well as the blind preacher. Soon, more SWAT members arrive and chase Nada away into an abandoned house.
The next day, people from the homeless camp are trying to find and salvage whatever they can from their now dozed over campsite. A television is on in the midst of the camp with a perfectly clear signal showing an advertisement. Nada goes across the street and walks through the ransacked church. Nada opens a fake wall that he had noticed the day before and finds a cardboard box inside. He steps outside as a police officer drives past and jumps back inside. When the officer is gone, he takes the box a few blocks away to an abandoned alley and opens it. There are several pairs of sunglasses inside the box. Nada hides the box and puts one pair on.
The movie shifts to black and white when Nada has the sunglasses on. He looks up at a billboard that simply says OBEY. He takes off the sunglasses, the movie returns to color, and Nada sees that the billboard is an advertisement for a computer data company. He looks in another direction, with the sunglasses off, and sees a billboard advertising for a vacation to the Caribbean. He puts the sunglasses on and the billboard now say MARRY AND REPRODUCE. The same phenomenon occurs everywhere he looks – billboards, books, and magazines all deliver simple commands when he wears the sunglasses.
Suddenly Nada notices a person standing next to him at a magazine stand who appears to be an alien. The alien man asks him, “what’s your problem” and Nada does not reply. When Nada takes the glasses off, the man looks completely human. Nada stares at the man as he walks away. He talks to another man about buying a newspaper. With the glasses on, Nada sees that the man selling the newspaper continues to look human. But the man who had been standing next to him continues to look alien.
With the glasses on, Nada sees a traffic light has what appears to be a small speaker at the top. The speaker rotates and says “sleep” repeatedly. Nada walks down the street and sees more aliens mixing in seamlessly with human beings. He wanders into a store where several aliens are shopping. He even sees on the TV what appears to be an alien politicians speaking in front of a banner that says OBEY.
He laughs and says aloud that it figures that it would be something like this. Just then, an alien bumps into him from behind. He tells her that her face looks like it fell into some cheese dip in the 1950s. He tells another store patron that she looks alright but the woman who just bumped him is extremely ugly when he puts his sunglasses on.
Put ’em back on? Formaldehyde face.
The cashier tells him to leave or he will call the cops. On the ground, he sees the older alien woman talking into some communication device on her watch.
I’ve got one that can see!
Suddenly he looks around and sees that all of the aliens in the store are talking into communication devices on their arm and giving a physical description of him. He runs outside the store. On the street, he sees an alien fixing her hair.
That’s like pouring perfume on a pig.
A moment later he is cornered by two alien police officers. They ask him where he got the sunglasses and they tell him this will be easier if they do not have to splatter his brains. Suddenly, Nada attacks the two officers and knocks them out. He retrieves a gun from one of them and ends up shooting them both. He notes that they die just like humans do. He pulls a rifle from the police car the two now-dead officers had been using as another police car arrives on the scene.
He backs into another building, holding the rifle, as he ducks out of the street. The building appears to be a bank. Everyone is now looking at him fearfully including several aliens.
Nada: I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick a**. And I’m all out of bubblegum.
Nada shoots several aliens. One of them he did not yet shoot is giving a description of him into his watch comms device. Nada points his rifle at him and says “Momma don’t like tattletales.” However, the alien abruptly disappears. Nada walks out the back door of the bank as police arrive at the front door. He is on the street alone except for a small silver flying drone with a camera pointing at him. Nada shoots it out of the sky. A human police officer comes up on him and Nada orders him to drop his weapon. The officer complies and runs away.
Nada sneaks up on a human woman getting into her car in a neighboring parking garage and puts his hand over her mouth. He gets into her car and tells her to drive but not too fast. She complies. She tells him when they are clear of the oncoming police. Nada asks her if she is married. Initially she lies but Nada notices. He tells her that they need to go to her place.
Two neighbors are standing outside when they arrive at her home. They address her as Holly (Meg Foster.) Inside the house, Nada looks around and then collapses on the floor. He says that wearing the glasses is like a drug and that you come down hard when you take them off. Nada tries to explain what is going on but Holly merely tells him that she will do whatever he wants as long as he does not hurt her.
Nada sits on her living room floor and closes his eyes. Holly sits across the room from him. When he looks like he is about to fall asleep, Holly stands up. He warns her and she insists that she is thirsty. He tells her to go get a drink. When she comes back with a bottle of wine and a wine glass, Nada apologizes to her for being in her home. Nada then asks her what her job is and she tells him that she is the assistant program director at Cable 54 – a television station. He excitedly stands up next to her window.
She slams the wine bottle into the back of his head, knocking him through her second story window, to the ground below, and then down a hill as he rolls. She calmly calls someone and tells them that she is alright. We see that Nada’s sunglasses are still on her counter. Nada hides as we hear police sirens approaching. He sleeps that night outside in an alley.
The next day, Nada returns to the construction site. He talks to Frank from a distance. Frank wants nothing to do with him knowing that he killed several people.
Nada: Not people.
Frank insists that Nada leave him alone because he has a wife and kids.
Nada goes back to where he hid the box filled with sunglasses. A garbage truck has just cleared the pile of trash under which he hid the box. Nada sneaks behind the truck and opens the back to dig around for the box. He finds the box just as the entire contents of the garbage truck are accidentally dumped out the back. It all lands on Nada.
As Nada gets up, Frank shows up. He gives Nada one week’s pay and says it is the best he can do. Nada tells Frank to put on the sunglasses and he gets a punch in the face for asking.
Nada: I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.
Frank opts for the trashcan. The two have a five minute long fight that includes punches, low blows, two-by-fours, biting, and suplexes onto concrete pavement. Eventually Nada gets the other hand and is able to force the glasses onto Frank’s face. He carries him down the alley far enough to see other people and Frank sees black-and-white aliens, a flying drone up ahead, and signs giving commands.
Nada: Look! Look at ’em they’re everywhere! Now hooold on, you ain’t the first son of a b**** to wake up out of their dream.
We see a very beaten up Frank and Nada walking down the street together. They are both now wearing the glasses. They check into a motel. Nada advises Frank against wearing the glasses for too long.
Frank: How long have they been there?
Nada: Who knows.
Frank: What are they? Where did they come from?
Nada: Well they ain’t from Cleveland.
Frank and Nada discuss what they should do and Frank suggests that they need to find the people who made the glasses.
That night, Nada tells Frank some of his life story. He ran away when he was thirteen because his father was abusive. He tells a particularly harrowing story about his father using a razor blade to mimic cutting his throat. Frank suggests that maybe “They” have always been with humanity. He suggests that they love watching us hate each other.
The next day, Gilbert finds Frank and Nada at their motel. He tells them that there is a meeting to attend. He advises them to be certain that nobody follows them.
Gilbert: The world needs a wake-up call. We’re gonna phone it in.
That night, Frank and Nada attend the meeting. They run into a woman that Frank knows. She gives them contact lenses to wear which she says have less interference than the sunglasses. In the background, we hear someone advising members to memorize the location of various safehouses.
Frank and Nada run into Gilbert.
Frank: What do these things want and why are they here?
Gilbert: They’re free-enterprisers. The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.
Frank and Nada join an assault team. They collect guns and ammunition from a table and put them into a bag. While they are doing this, another man shows them a watch they have collected from the aliens. He says that this allows them to listen in on their conversation. However, he has thus far been unable to figure out how they use the watch to disappear.
Gilbert leads the meeting. He tells the group that they should have twice as many members present and says that they are becoming sloppy. He advises everyone to bide their time until they can shut down the aliens’ signal. They have reason to believe there is one primary signal.
Just then, Holly starts speaking from the doorway. She tells them that the one signal they suspect is clean and that the real signal is coming from some place else. Nada approaches her to talk and she asks if he is okay.
Holly: I thought I’d killed you.
Nada: I thought so too.
Holly: I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.
Just as she asks Nada if they can talk, the room explodes in gun fire. The police have arrived. Most of the human resistance members die. Frank, Nada, and Holly manage to escape from the building. The shootout continues outside the building. The two men have more success killing aliens outside. Frank has an alien’s watch. As he is trying to listen in, more aliens appear down the alleyway. He drops the watch. It announces out loud that it has malfunctioned. A portal opens up in the ground. The watch counts down how long they have to leave through the portal. Both men jump through.
They land in a long tunnel under ground. A voice over an intercom tells them that if they need assistance, bi-lingual instruction is available in the corridor. In the corridor, Nada and Frank hear through an intercom that Operation Steel Fist was a success and that all of the terrorists have been wiped out.
The two men continue down the hallway and they hear applause in the distance. Inside a large formal dining hall, a man is giving a speech telling the assembled crowd that the alliance between the aliens and the human elite has been successful. The speaker talks about how the average income of the people in the room has grown, in this year alone, by an average of thirty-nine percent.
We see that the speaker is himself an alien.
A man greets Frank and Nada. He offers to show them around. While walking around, we see that the tunnel includes a spot for interstellar transport.
Next, he takes them to the room from where their signal goes out. It’s a news room. Nada asks if their guide can take them inside. The man looks at the guards and says that they are friends, so he does not believe that this would be much of a problem. When the guards ask for their authorization cards, Nada and Frank pulls out pistols, shoot him, and say “right here.”
You still don’t get it, do you, boys? There ain’t no countries anymore, no more good guys. They’re running the whole show! They own everything[…]They can do whatever they want!
He uses his wrist watch to portal away. Frank and Nada break into the news room and begin killing the alien news anchors, cameramen, etc. This news room appears to be the origin point for the traditional news broadcast. Nada becomes convinced that Holly is somewhere in the building. As the two men kill alien soldiers (and human soldiers working on behalf of the aliens) in hallway after hallway, they eventually find Holly. Nada drags her along with them as they proceed toward the roof. Their goal appears to be to destroy the aliens’ broadcast signal from the rooftop.
As they reach the roof, Nada runs out to secure the roof. As soon as he is gone, Holly takes a gun and shoots Frank in the head. When Nada asks Frank if he is clear, Holly answers to say that she is clear. She is pointing a gun at Nada. She tells him not to do this.
H: Don’t interfere. You can’t win.
A helicopter appears and tells Nada to drop his weapon. He does. However, he pulls a handgun from his sleeve and shoots Holly. Then he shoots the satellite dish on top of the roof. Presumably this kills the aliens’ signal. Several explosions follow. As he lays on the roof, presumably dying, he smiles and gives the bird.
We see a montage of various aliens suddenly revealing what they really look like – TV anchors, friends at the bar, movie critics, etc. [The movie critic alien is taking a humorous jab at John Carpenter when his face is revealed.] The movie ends with a prostitute having sex while the TV is playing. She looks over at the TV. At first she sees someone on the screen who look like an alien. Then she sees the man she is having sex with suddenly look alien.
The camera pans down to him, with her astride him, saying “hey, what’s wrong, baby?”
They Live is a cult classic film.
For John Carpenter, the director, the movie was intended to be a rebuke of capitalism in the 1980s. Every alien we meet throughout the film is rich and successful. They dress well. They wear a nice watch. Or they drive a fancy car. Conversely, the more down on their luck, the more likely to be an actual human. The subliminal messaging that a human can see with the glasses on is authoritarian – “obey,” “submit,” “consume.” – but it is revelatory inasmuch as rather than coming from a government the authoritarian messaging is coming from corporations.
Carpenter’s view appears to be that a not-so-obvious authoritarian capitalist elite has infiltrated the the levers of power all over the planet via the subtle power of consumerism. In They Live, he merely extends the infiltration narrative a step farther and credits it to aliens. This has the effect of creating a visual mechanism for demonstrating the segregation of the world’s financial classes. (Of course, you need to put on the glasses to see it.)
Of the two main characters, Frank (Keith David) embraced intellectually the idea of a class struggle. We saw some of that early in the film when he recounted a story of his factory closing. The workers gave the ownership a break and the ownership gave themselves raises. Nada (Roddy Piper), on the other hand, never quite bought into that class struggle narrative outwardly. He tells Frank that he does honest work for honest pay and that he expects things to work out. He idealistically buys into the concept of the American Dream.
For some people, the movie is a cult classic because it was brazenly left of center politically in an era when that was uncommon.
There’s another completely different reason that this movie is held up as a a cult classic by a lot of film fans: it’s a great action movie. The fight between Roddy Piper’s Nada and Keith David’s Frank is the stuff of legends. It stands today as one of the longest fistfight scenes in the history of film, clocking in at over seven minutes in duration. It delivered punches, bites, broken car windows, low blows, more punches, and multiple wrestling suplexes onto the concrete pavement. When it was over, both men shrugged it off and found a motel to hide out in together.
In another completely bananas scene, Holly (Meg Foster) bashes Roddy Piper’s Nada so hard in the head that he flies out of her home’s second story window, rolls down a hill, and he basically walks away without broken bones. Somehow.
Roddy Piper also ad-libbed one of the most iconic lines in action movie history.
I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a**. And I’m all out of bubble gum.
I was genuinely impressed with the physicality of the two actors in this film. You might expect that from Roddy Piper, the professional wrestler, but Keith David more than held his own.
The movie bombed at the box office. I have to wonder if some of the reason for that is the mutual discomfort felt by pro wrestling fans and socialists (not that one cannot be the other) at congregating together for the film.
Financial politics and faces punches aside, what about our baddies? The human baddie, in the surprise twist, was Holly. If you were paying close attention, the film gives you plenty of clues that the twist is coming. She is beautiful, rich, and successful. None of the good guys in this film are those things. She is eerily calm while being kidnapped. She is eerily calm after throwing a man from a second story window. When she shows up at the meeting, the police show up with her. She manages not to be hurt at all in the melee at the meeting. Maybe most telling of all, she goes right back to work at the news room with a large group of aliens and suffers no consequences for attending the meeting.
The aliens were… mundane. That was the point, though. They could be anyone. When the world could finally see their faces at the end of the movie, it was akin to a human being marked out visibly by his or her greed. The aliens were not big, strong, hyper intelligent, immune to death, or anything particularly noteworthy. They controlled the world but that control was surprisingly vulnerable (as we saw at the end of the film.) They were just greedy, successful, and ugly. The take-away from their face reveal really was that the ugliness of their hearts was finally visible. We do not know ultimately what humanity did with the new information.
This movie combines a lot of things that I enjoy: action, aliens, and a high-brow subtext. You can watch it and enjoy it for any or all of those reasons.