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They influence our decisions without us knowing it. They numb our senses without us feeling it. They control our lives without us realizing it. Horror master John Carpenter directs this action-packed sci-fi thriller about one man's battle against aliens who are systematically gaining control of the Earth.
An economic crisis brings unemployed Nada (Roddy Piper) to L.A. in search of work. What he finds instead is that the ruling elite of the world are aliens in disguise, their aim being to keep humans in a state of mindless consumerism. His discovery comes when he dons a pair of special sunglasses made by a resistance group and sees for the first time reality unadorned. Billboards, store signs, magazine covers--all bear subliminal messages to OBEY, to CONSUME, to have NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT. Money itself says THIS IS YOUR GOD. But worst of all, with these glasses you see which of us are really hideous, bug-eyed aliens. The conceptual breakthrough is hilarious while keeping its roots in darker matters. Although some fault the film for settling into its action plot, the ending has a great payoff. And the direction by John Carpenter is handled with superb workmanlike aplomb. One unforgettable set piece has Piper in a back-alley fistfight with a friend who won't put on the glasses that goes on and on, and just when you think it's over it goes another round. One of the most subversive films ever made in Hollywood, They Live was released on the eve of the 1988 elections. The first TV ads had two hideous alien politicians debating, then one accusing the other of being "No John Kennedy!" --Jim Gay
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Carpenter was riding on the success of Halloween, which was in its day the highest grossing independent film ever made. Escape From New York was another hit movie and by this time he was getting major studio offerings. He then directed his first big studio picture The Thing. This film was expected to be a commercial hit but unfortunately, the film was a disaster and was even considered one of the most hated films by critics and audiences alike. Although The Thing has found a cult audience over the years, it was the film that launched a series of commercial failures from the director.
Carpenter was feeling frustrated with the way the studio system was heading so he decided to make a film that expressed this which is where They Live comes in. This film may be one of the bravest movies in its day. During the 1980s, we were being told to do nothing but consume. This film is a study of the world being corrupt by the media and how it tells us to simply not care and just make tons of money. The middle class are portrayed as villains in the film and that being rich and successful is the only way to be happy while poor working class people are being treated as useless. We all believe that fame and fortune is what makes us somebody but Carpenter wasn't about to become a sell out and instead he dealt with his frustration by making this film and when you look at it now you can't help but think what an honest direction that was to go in.
But this movie isn't just for deep thinkers, it is also a kick ass sci-fi action movie and it's a lot of fun too. Sure, the movie is goofy at times and very B movie material but to me that's a positive aspect, I think that was the perfect way to portray the story. I would put this movie up there with A Clockwork Orange (1971) even, as pretentious as that sounds.
The plot is fairly simple - a drifter known only as Nada stumbles upon a group of small time revolutionaries bent on exposing the reality of life as we know it. With the help of special sunglasses, Nada is able to see that the world we live in is nothing like we perceive it. There is subliminal advertising everywhere and certain people who look human, are in fact, aliens. Nada makes it his mission to find out the source of this charade and destroy it, thus exposing the aliens for what they truly are to the unaware public.
The story, although a pretty straightforward Sci-Fi script in some respects, has many undertones aimed at the Reagan 1980's - mainly the perception that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and that the upper 5% forces the lower classes to stay lower, living paycheck to paycheck while the upper 5% get wealthier and live more and more extravagantly. The story explores this concept by introducing the aliens as the upper 5% (with some humans allowed to bask in the wealth as well in return for their silence) who use subliminal advertising and a satellite signal to effectively render Humans into a state of conscious hypnosis, masking the true world around them and fooling them into believing the world to be normal, when it is anything but - in fact, it's my belief that the Wachowski brothers expanded on this very idea for their Matrix films.
What Carpenter was able to produce was a solid movie, with a strong script, and surprisingly good acting from Pro Wrestling Legend 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper and a good supporting cast including Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, and George 'Buck' Flower. 'They Live' is a film that will live on and on thanks to these components which Carpenter was able to weave together so masterfully.
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