They Live (1988)

they live poster 1988 movie
7.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 6/10
Visuals: 7/10

Great premise, fun aliens

Loses steam in the second half, so-so acting

Movie Info

Movie Name:  They Live

Studio:  Alive Films

Genre(s):  Sci-Fi/Horror/Action/Adventure/B-Movie

Release Date(s):  November 4, 1988

MPAA Rating:  R

they live roddy piper sunglasses chew bubblegum and kick ass

I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum (adlibbed by Piper who came up with it for his wrestling character)

A former banker (Roddy Piper) down on his luck comes to L.A. to try to find direction for his life in the competitive world where the rich seem to get richer. When he begins to see signs of an underground movement, he uncovers a pair of sunglasses that let him see the world for what it is. An alien invasion has occurred and the aliens have already won…causing people to even sell out the human race all for the almighty dollar. Now Nada and his friend Frank Armitage (Keith David) are out to expose them and bring their empire down.  Nada’s there to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and he’s all out of bubblegum!

Directed by John Carpenter, They Live is a sci-fi-horror satire.  Written by John Carpenter (under the name of Frank Armitage which also Keith David’s character’s name), the film adapts a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” which was published in the fantasy magazine The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (November 1963) combined with a comic book story called “Nada” from Alien Encounters #6 (April 1986). The film was initially met with so-so reviews, but They Live now has become a cult classic.

they live alien hair salon

An alien must look her best!

They Live is a great idea. Instead of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the aliens take over the people by replacing them, they blend with them and cater to the rampant commercialism that was especially high in the ’80s. The segment where Nada discovers that the glasses lets him see the “truth” is fun…all the billboards, magazines, and signs are just means to hypnotize the average man…the only problem with They Live is that it continues for a long time after this fun scene and needs a little more direction to the storytelling.

The movie really hits a bump after Nada’s rampage at the bank. Carpenter didn’t seem to know where to go with the story. There is a quite amusing (and long) fight between Nada and Frank that was unscripted and was actually recreated in the South Park fifth season episode “Cripple Fight” (watch They Live then watch Timmy and Jimmy…fun). Then because they don’t know how to get Nada and Frank to the alien base they randomly have them teleport there for a really rushed ending which loses any style by being in a boring office building with generic halls. At least the basic creature design is interesting and fun…and especially well utilized for the ending.

they live roddy piper keith david fight


The acting in They Live is so-so. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was huge in the WWF at the time, and Carpenter met him during Wrestlemania III. Piper tries in the role, but he isn’t quite there acting wise (Carpenter’s go-to Kurt Russell was considered, but Carpenter wanted a fresher face).  Piper shows potential, but in some ways the script let him down by catering to his wrestling past.  Keith David was used in Carpenter’s The Thing and Carpenter allegedly wrote the role with him in mind. I’ve always thought Meg Foster wasn’t a very good actress and she continues her trend as the cold Holly Thompson who seems suspicious from the start.

Visually, the imagery of They Live is something that has maintained.  Carpenter based the movie on the rampant consumerism following the Reagan years and the yuppie culture.  The idea that TV and magazines really say nothing could be argued isn’t far off and visuals of the movie have continued to resonate through today.

they live alien ending bar

Can’t an alien invader have a drink at a bar in peace?

They Live is a movie that has a lot of good and a little bad to it. I always forget how smart the script starts out, then forgets how much it falls apart near the end. The movie also is a dangerous film in the lines of Fight Club or V for Vendetta where people co-op the message for their own means.  Today the right or the left could use They Live as a means to support their message (an example is in 2017 when Carpenter had to speak up against Neo-Nazis using the movie as a means to back their idea of a Jewish conspiracy).  I could actually see a modernization of They Live with a stronger cast and more concise script succeeding in today’s atmosphere.  Unlike a lot of remakes, it could be an interesting remake instead of some of the duller remakes that have come out of Hollywood…until then, OBEY and enjoy They Live.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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