They Live Review

they live

They Live is a strange experience. On the one hand it wears its anti-commercialism message on its sleeve, and on the other it’s an unashamed cheesy action/sci-fi movie with funny quips and insults everywhere. One thing’s for sure though: it’s a good laugh, and Roddy Piper is surprisingly good in the lead role too (not that it’s the most complex part in cinema history…) So let’s have a look at the 1980s entry into the 10 Decades, 10 Sci-Fi films marathon…


Drifter “Nada” moves to Los Angeles to find work in construction. Nada befriends fellow construction worker Frank Armitage, who leads him to a shanty town soup kitchen. A disruptive television signal and a preacher both warn of conspiracies, and Nada discovers a nearby church is a front for scientific equipment. After the church is raided and the shantytown bulldozed, Nada retrieves a box of sunglasses from the church’s wall, wearing one pair and hiding the rest in an alley dumpster. The sunglasses reveal a hidden reality: media and advertising hide omnipresent subliminal stimuli to obey, consume, reproduce, and conform, while many of the elite are actually grotesque aliens.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

Cast of Characters:

they live 1

“I came here to chew ass, and kick bubblegum… and I’m all out of ass!” … That’s the classic line, isn’t it?

Nada (Roddy Piper) – A drifter who is just looking for work, and truly believes if he just keeps his head down and work hard that he’ll be rewarded…

Frank Armitage (Keith David) – Frank is currently working in a construction yard, sending his money back to his family at home. Given how hard it is to find work, he’s not interested in any trouble…

Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) – Holly works at Cable 54, a local TV station that, seemingly unbeknownst to her, is transmitting signals to force humans to conform to their new alien overlords…

The Hidden Alien Threat (Various) – Aliens have begun to take over Earth, using hidden advertising and subliminal messaging to take the people’s will away and slip into their high society without issue…

Plus more!

The Good:

they live 2

You should see them when Nada puts the glasses on!

They Live is a fun film, it has a central message it wants to promote, but it’s also going to make sure you have a damn good time while it tries to tell it to you. It starts off quite slow, more people are unemployed and have to move from state to state in order to find work, that sort of thing. Nada is happy to keep smiling and keep working and is trying not to think about the goings on at the top of the chain, even when a mysterious broadcast interrupts a TV show fellow workers are watching trying to warn people about an invisible threat. After a mysterious church gains his attention a bunch of riot police and other government type raids and destroys the shantytown he’s staying in, but Nada still just helps people and moves on… until he finds a box of sunglasses from the church, and happens to stick a pair on…

Yes, this is where the film goes bonkers, as Nada puts the shades on the sees TV advertisements, billboards and magazines replaced with simple messages of conformity, and  then suddenly some high and mighty types in a supermarket turn out to look like some freaky, skin-less ghouls, but again, only with the sunglasses on. Nada then… goes a bit insane, throws some amusingly straight forward insults at some of these ghouls and then kills two ghoul cops and steals their guns, leading to the infamous and often quoted arrival to “chew bubblegum and kick ass, but he’s all out of bubblegum”. He then guns down a bunch more aliens before fleeing with an innocent lady in her car. This mindless killing was such a sudden tonal shift that it completely took me by surprise, I’d always assumed that was towards the end of the film! Nada does later say that using the sunglasses was like a drug, complete with a bad come down when you take them off, so that at least explains his sudden behavour…

The rest of the film sees Nada meet back up with construction yard friend Frank and proceed to fight for ages in an alleyway, then the two meet a resistance group… which is soon raided and most of everyone else is slaughtered. The two find their way into the alien’s secret underground bunker and give a final push to the roof of Cable 54 in order to switch off the transmitter and make everyone see the aliens like they do. During the final moments Frank is shot by the innocent woman from earlier, Holly, who is then shot by Nada moments before he takes out the transmitter while seemingly being gunned down by a helicopter. The last half of the film is certainly a lot more mindless fun than the first half, that’s for sure! The message seems to get lost in the gun violence and funny quips, which is strange given how in-your-face it is for the first half…

I did like the look of the aliens though, very eerie but just that little bit silly so as to add to the fun feel of the film. The very end sequence where people suddenly see them living their lives around them was a good laugh too…

The Bad:

they live 4

“My God! You were right!”  “I know! I just wish we hadn’t spent the past few hours beating the shit out of each other before you believed me…”

While its good cheesy fun, I wouldn’t blame someone for saying they don’t like the film. Roddy Piper does a good job in the role of the lead, given he just needed to be a grizzled looking guy who can throw insults (anyone familiar with his wrestling work knows he can certainly do that!) but the rest of the cast is on the lower side of the acting spectrum, not quite B-movie bad, but never very convincing. Again, along with the message, the script tells me John Carpenter wasn’t going for serious drama here, so it’s okay that it’s lacking Oscar calibre acting, but if you say the film did nothing for you, I won’t try and defend it…

While it does sometime verge on “so over-the-top it’s funny”, the five and a half minute alley fight between Nada and Frank feels more like 50 minutes, just when you think it’s over and it’s time to move to the next scene, the fight starts back up again! The joke ran thin in my eyes, sadly, even if Frank’s confusion that this man is beating the crap out of him is doing it because he really wants him to put on his sunglasses still remains amusing…

Overall Thoughts:

they live 3

“…. What?”

They Live is a good laugh, I certainly enjoyed my time with it, but the sudden tonal shift and some poor acting does hurt it in the long run. It had a good message (that’s only become more relevent, really…) but the message is soon lost in 80s ultra gun violence and evil aliens with spooky faces. Again, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my hour and a half with the movie, but it may not be for everyone. My personal score  though? Well…

4 Star Watch

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