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They Live

Theatrical release poster.
Directed by John Carpenter
Produced by Larry J. Franco
Written by Short story:
Ray Nelson
John Carpenter
Starring Roddy Piper
Keith David
Meg Foster
Raymond St. Jacques
Peter Jason
Sy Richardson
George 'Buck' Flower
Music by John Carpenter
Alan Howarth
Cinematography Gary B. Kibbe
Editing by Gib Jaffe
Frank E. Jimenez
Distributed by Universal Studios (USA)
Carolco Pictures (non-USA)
Release date(s) United States November 4, 1988
Running time 93 minutes
Country  United States
Language English
Budget $3,000,000 (estimated)

They Live is a 1988 film directed by John Carpenter, who also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym "Frank Armitage." The movie is based on Ray Nelson's 1963 short story "Eight O’Clock in the Morning."

Part science fiction thriller and part dark comedy, the film echoed contemporary fears of a declining economy, within a culture of greed and conspicuous consumption common among Americans in the 1980s. In They Live, the ruling class within the monied elite are in fact aliens managing human social affairs through the use of a signal on top of the TV broadcast that is concealing their appearance and subliminal messages in mass media.



The story revolves around a nameless man referred to as "Nada" (Roddy Piper), a quiet drifter who finds work on a Los Angeles construction site. One of the workers, Frank Armitage (Keith David), takes him to a local shantytown. After eating at the soup kitchen and spending the night, he notices odd behavior at the small church across the street. Investigating, he discovers that the church's soup kitchen is a front: inside, the loud "choir practice" is a recording, scientific apparatus fills a back room, and cardboard boxes are stacked everywhere, including some in a secret compartment that he stumbles across.

That night, the police surround the church, forcing the inhabitants to flee. The police then turn on the shantytown, destroying it with bulldozers and beating the blind minister of the church to death. Nada returns to the site the next day and investigates the church again, which has been emptied. He takes one of the boxes from the secret compartment and opens it in an alleyway, finding it full of sunglasses. He keeps one pair and leaves the rest in a garbage can.

When Nada later dons the glasses for the first time, the world appears in shades of grey, with significant differences. He notices that a billboard now simply displays the word "Obey"; without them it advertises that Control Data Corporation is "creating a transparent computing environment." Another billboard (normally displaying "Come to the Caribbean" written above a lovely woman lying on a beach) now displays the text "Marry and Reproduce." He also sees that paper money bears the words "This is your God." All printed matter around him contains subliminal advertising.

Additionally, he soon discovers that many people are actually aliens, who are human-looking except for skull-like faces. When the aliens realize he can see them for what they truly are, the police suddenly arrive. Nada escapes and steals a police shotgun; while evading the police, he accidentally stumbles into a local bank filled with aliens. Realizing that the jig is up, he proclaims, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum." A shooting spree ensues and after killing many of them, one of the aliens sees him and disappears after twisting a dial on his wristwatch. Fleeing the bank, he forces a woman (Meg Foster) at gunpoint to take him to her house in the Hollywood Hills. Taking off the glasses to rest, he remarks "wearin' these glasses makes you high, but, oh, you come down hard." Holly (the woman) tricks Nada and pushes him through her window, nearly killing him. He leaves behind his pair of sunglasses, however.

After recovering, Nada returns to the construction site to talk over with Frank what he discovered. Seeing Nada as a wanted man for the shooting spree, Frank is initially uninterested in his story. The two engage in a long fight as Nada attempts to convince and then force Frank to put on the sunglasses. When Frank finally puts on the glasses, he sees the aliens around him as well. Frank joins Nada as they get in contact with the group from the church. They learn that a meeting is being held at a local community center later that evening. The community group listens to a seminar in the background introducing radical ideas. For example, the aliens are blamed for carbon dioxide and methane emissions – "They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere" – and quickly using up the planet's resources. Holly returns, claiming to now believe Nada, and delivers some information to the rebels.

At the meeting, they learn that the aliens' primary method of control is a signal being sent out on television, which is why the general public cannot see the aliens for what they are. An unknown but brilliant inventor has created a lens called the Hofmann lens. The lens shows the world as it really is. The sunglasses, which are also available as contact lenses, interfere with the aliens' hypnotic signal. The meeting is raided by the police, who shoot to kill. Nada and Frank escape with the help of one of the wrist devices. They find themselves in a network of underground passages that link hidden parts of the alien society including a port for space travel. Through the passages they find the aliens are throwing a party for their human collaborators.

Further passages lead to the basement of a local TV station, Cable 54, and the source of the aliens' signal. Holly, who works at the station, is found by Frank and Nada and they take her with them to the roof. Nada runs up to the roof expecting that Holly and Frank are behind him. Holly pulls out a gun, presses it against Frank's temple, and kills Frank. Through the special lenses Nada notices the broadcasting antenna. Holly gets to the roof, then takes aim at Nada. Nada uses a hidden sleeve pistol and kills Holly. Nada then turns his attention back to the broadcasting antenna. Nada is shot and fatally wounded by the aliens, but manages to destroy the broadcasting antenna in the process. As a last dying act, Nada gives the aliens the finger.

With the signal now destroyed, people around L.A. are surprised to discover aliens in their midst – seeing them on TV, chatting with them at the bar, meeting with them at the office, and even having sex with them.



The idea for They Live came from two sources: a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1960s, involving an alien invasion in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a story called "Nada" from the Alien Encounters comic book.[1] John Carpenter describes Nelson's story as "a D.O.A. type of story, in which a man is put in a trance by a stage hypnotist. When he awakens, he realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that alien creatures are controlling humanity. He has only until eight o'clock in the morning to solve the problem."[1] Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the comic book and short story and wrote the screenplay using Nelson's story as a basis for the film's structure.

The more political elements of the film are derived from Carpenter's growing distaste with the ever-increasing commercialization of 1980s popular culture and politics. He remarked, "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." To this end, Carpenter thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colorized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space." Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing old black-and-white movies. The director commented on the alien threat in an interview, "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film." The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls according to Carpenter, who said: "The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings."[1]

Because the screenplay was the product of so many sources: a short story, a comic book, and input from cast and crew, Carpenter decided to use the pseudonym "Frank Armitage," an allusion to one of the filmmaker's favorite writers, H. P. Lovecraft (Frank Armitage is a character in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror).[1] Carpenter has always felt a close kinship with Lovecraft's worldview and according to the director, "Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the world underneath. His stories were about gods who are repressed, who were once on Earth and are now coming back. The world underneath has a great deal to do with They Live."[1]


After a budget of approximately three million dollars was raised, Carpenter began casting the film. For the crucial role of Nada, the filmmaker cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper, whom he met at WrestleMania III earlier in 1987. For Carpenter it was an easy choice: "Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him."[1] Carpenter was impressed with Keith David's performance in The Thing and needed someone "who wouldn't be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own."[1] To this end, Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for the actor.


They Live was shot in eight weeks during March and April 1988, principally on location in downtown L.A. with a budget only slightly larger than $3,000,000.[1] One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-half minute alley fight between David and Piper over a pair of the special sunglasses. Carpenter recalls that the fight took three weeks to rehearse: "It was an incredibly brutal and funny fight, along the lines of the slugfest between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man."[1]


Critical response

Although not an immediate commercial success, the critical consensus according to Rotten Tomatoes was "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter." Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 88%.[2] Metacritic gave the film 50 out of 100.[3]

In his review for the Boston Globe, Jay Carr wrote, "But once Carpenter delivers his throwback-to-the-'50s visuals, complete with plump little B-movie flying saucers, and makes his point that the rich are fascist fiends, They Live starts running low on imagination and inventiveness", but felt that "as sci-fi horror comedy, They Live, with its wake-up call to the world, is in a class with Terminator and Robocop, even though its hero doesn't sport bionic biceps".[4] In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Carpenter's wit and storytelling craft make this fun and watchable, although the script takes a number of unfortunate shortcuts, and the possibilities inherent in the movie's central conceit are explored only cursorily".[5] Rick Groen, in his review for the Globe and Mail, wrote, "the movie never gets beyond the pop Orwell premise. The social commentary wipes clean with a dry towelette - it's not intrusive and not pedantic, just lighter-than-air".[6] In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. So is its crazy inconsistency, since the film stops trying to abide even by its own game plan after a while".[7] Richard Harrington, in his review for the Washington Post wrote, "it's just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for "They Live" is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre".[8]

Box office

They Live opened on November, 6th 1988 and grossed $4,827,000 (USA).[9] The film had a total domestic gross of $13,008,928 (USA) on an estimated $3-4 million budget.[9] Carpenter is on record as attributing the film's initial commercial failure to result from an audience "[those] who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don't want to be enlightened".[1]


The film was ranked #18 on Entertainment Weekly magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list.[10]


Criticism of television

The film's criticisms of television are not limited to the content of the story but can also be found in the film's cinematic treatment. They Live was shot in Panavision, with full-screen compositions and important visual information on the right and left sides of the widescreen, making it difficult if not impossible (letterboxing was not a common practice in the early 1990s) for the film to be shown intact on TV, because in the film television is an important part of what is wrong with America.[11]

Director's trademarks

The film continues John Carpenter's use of Panavision wide-screen compositions, important images from TV/video sets, and the casting of "Carpenter's Repertory Group" players Peter Jason and George 'Buck' Flower.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Swires, Steve (November 1988). "John Carpenter and the Invasion of the Yuppie Snatchers". Starlog: pp. 37–40; 43. 
  2. ^ They Live Movie Reviews, Pictures--Rotten Tomatoes
  3. ^ They Live - Metacritic; Access Date: December 22, 2009
  4. ^ Carr, Jay (November 4, 1988). "What if we're cattle for aliens?". Boston Globe. 
  5. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "They Live". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  6. ^ Groen, Rick (November 5, 1988). "They Live". Globe and Mail. 
  7. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 4, 1988). "A Pair of Sunglasses Reveals a World of Evil". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  8. ^ Harrington, Richard (November 5, 1988). "They Live". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  9. ^ a b IMDb Box Office/Business - They Live (1988)
  10. ^ "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83". Entertainment Weekly. September 3, 2008.,,20221982_8,00.html. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  11. ^ Kawin, Bruce F. & Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies - 9th Edition. Pg. 663. Pearson Education Inc. ISBN 0-321-26232-8
  12. ^ "IMDb Biography of John Carpenter". Retrieved 2009-12-15. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

They Live is a 1988 science fiction film.


  • I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum.
  • Momma don't like tattletales.
  • You, you're ok. This one, real fuckin' ugly.
  • You… you look like your face fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.
  • You see, I take these glasses off, and she looks like a regular person, doesn't she? Put 'em back on…Formaldehyde Face!
  • That's like pouring perfume on a pig.
  • Brother, life's a bitch…and she's back in heat!
  • Either put the glasses on, or start eatin' that trashcan!
  • White line's in the middle of the road—that's the worst place to drive.
 Don't fuck with me lady
 Aint love grand?
 They aint from Cleavland


Graffiti: They live, we sleep

Alien in store: I've got one that can see!

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.

Bum: Blow it out your ass


Subliminal Message on US Currency: "THIS IS YOUR GOD"

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