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'They Live' is John Carpenter at his most gloriously unsubtle

Not unlike "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, They Live hits you over the head with blunt punch after blunt punch. 

By James Grebey
Roddy Piper They Live (1988) GETTY


While the folks at NBCUniversal who own Peacock (and SYFY WIRE) might raise an eyebrow at being compared to the alien invaders in John Carpenter’s They Live, now streaming on Peacock, it wouldn’t be the first time. The legendary horror director reportedly used a line that a real-life Universal executive uttered all those years ago while making the anti-Reaganism, anti-Yuppie movie (“Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.”) in the finished film. That this behind-the-scenes interaction is so perfectly on-the-nose only speaks to how incredible They Live is; a powerfully unsubtle movie that, not unlike "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, hits you over the head with blunt punch after blunt punch. 

They Live stars Piper, a professional wrestler who Carpenter cast because “Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him,” as a nameless drifter (identified as Nada in the credits) who gets a job working construction in Los Angeles. While at a homeless camp, he stumbles upon a group of conspiracy theorists who aren’t so crazy after all. When Nada puts on a special pair of sunglasses, he can see the world for what it really is. Bug-eyed, skull-faced aliens have colonized Earth and are secretly living amongst us and controlling our lives. Billboards actually say messages like “OBEY” and all of society is really geared towards keeping us docile and making the invaders — and the humans who sell out and ally with them — wealthy. Nada takes it upon himself to reveal the invaders’ dastardly plot using violence. He is, after all, here to “chew bubblegum and kick ass.” And he’s all out of bubble gum…

Carpenter has said that They Live, which was a loose adaptation of an Invasion of the Body-Snatchers-like short story from writer Ray Nelson called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," was inspired by Carpenter’s distaste of Ronald Regan's economic policies. In an issue of Starlog Magazine carpenter explained the movie’s theme:

"The picture's premise is that the 'Reagan Revolution' is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it's a third-world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they'll move on to another world,” Carpenter said. “I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. ... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money." 

Carpenter, it should be noted, doesn’t appear to have a fundamental problem with capitalism. By all accounts, the man loves to get paid. But, there was something about Yuppies and the consumption-fueled ethos of Reaganism that seems insidious — perhaps especially so because of how readily people, like that poor studio executive who Carpenter quoted, bought into it. 

Even now, decades after the Regan administration, They Live still rings true because it’s such a simple and effective metaphor. The rich do seem to be getting richer, don’t they? We are just being asked to buy things, aren't we? What if there is a way to see what’s really going on? It’s an alien invasion story and the aliens have invaded not with laser guns, but with marketing and subliminal messages. 

When Nada puts on the sunglasses, things literally become black and white. The way he deals with the aliens is to arm up and take ‘em out. It is not exactly a subtle film.

There is, admittedly, a downside to this accessible theme and lack of subtlety. It sadly doesn’t take too much work to attach some very specific and very ugly themes to Carpenter’s alien shoot-em-up. Neo-Nazis have likened They Live’s alien invaders to an imagined Jewish cabal that secretly controls the world. Carpenter has explicitly disavowed this reading. “THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism,” he tweeted in 2017. “It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.”

And, even without anti-Semitism, there is something slightly upsetting in 2022 about seeing a man who is assured that he sees the world as it really is taking a machine gun to a place of business and mowing down (what looks to everyone else like) normal, unarmed civilians. As with many ‘80s movies, the gun violence hasn’t aged especially well. 

None of this is Carpenter’s fault, however, and They Live’s uncharitable readings are simply an unwanted consequence of its killer premise. It’s a tremendously fun film about alien invaders that feels all too human. 

They Live is now streaming on Peacock