They Live is an excellent, very memorable and most of all very straightforward film, with a very clear critical stance on culture and control. Though it has aged fantastically, and reached a cult following, it first received negative criticism, not just for the writing and acting, but for its blatant social commentary.
John Nada (played by Roddy Piper), literally named “nothing”, is a homeless man who finds work in a construction site in Los Angeles. One of the workers, Frank Armitage (played by Keith David), welcomes him to spend the night in local shelters. While the surroundings are being shown, he notices some strange behavior in a small church across the street. Investigating leads him to finding one of the boxes from the secret compartment, full of nothing but sunglasses. He saves a pair and leaves the rest in a garbage can, not yet aware of the value they posses.
When Nada puts on the glasses for the first time, the world appears in shades of gray, all flashy advertisements stripped off. He notices that an advertising poster now simply shows the word “Obey”; Another billboard, usually showing “Come to the Caribbean” written on top of a woman lying on a beach, now shows “Marry and reproduce.” Paper money carries the words “This is your God.” Nada realizes that everything around him contains subliminal messaging.
The world is filled with and run by literal skeletal aliens, exploiting this planet by hypnotizing people into living obedient lives, filled only with a deep need for consumption. They have managed to infiltrate every aspect of life on Earth, and it feels like it’d be too late to stop them at this point. The ruling class has all the power over the masses, with most of the people in the masses either unaware of their existence, disinterested in changing the status quo, or even being actively complicit in the disintegration of humanity.
This film doesn’t just offer a message, it also has one of the most symbolic scenes ever shot. The movie owes its cult following to this centerpiece scene, just as much as it does to the entirety of its storyline. As Nada tries to convince Frank to put on the glasses and see the truth for himself, the most iconic few minutes of on-screen fighting ensue, and if the whole message of the movie wasn’t memorable enough, this scene definitely will be.
The message of They Live is as universal and timeless as it gets and shares themes with 1984 and The Truman Show, though it feels like it’s important to acknowledge the deep personal importance this film has had for its director, John Carpenter. A skilled and creative man, whose work at the time started getting lost in the growing industry of carbon copy blockbusters, criticized consumerism in the simplest, most effective way.