Aliens invade Los Angeles (and by implication, the entire world) but no one notices, because of their television mind control devices. Instead, everyone is hypnotized into believing everything is normal, with continual reinforcement through just about every media venue, from billboards and magazines, even to the dollar bills in currency. Only a few people can see the truth and they are the most hunted people on the planet.
Unfortunately for the aliens, the newest person to see through the mind control haze is a drifter with an extraordinary sense of self-preservation and the back-alley fighting skills to back it up. One drifter against an entire city. The aliens are in trouble.
Description: The hero, George (Roddy Piper) an unemployed construction worker, wanders into Los Angeles, looking for work in a down-turned economy. He wasn't expecting to be a hero, but when he finds a pair of sunglasses in the ruin of a church after a police raid, he discovers the glasses reveal the truth about the world: a black&white image of rampant subliminal programming and indoctrination, all designed to pacify a populace and hide an alien invasion and the aliens themselves from the pacified populace.
And with that knowledge comes conflict: once the aliens identify him as someone who knows the truth, the full might of the city is after him. Fortunately, he is also discovered by the underground resistance movement who distributed the sunglasses and is preparing a raid on the central control of the alien mind control device: once it is destroyed, the world will see the truth.
History: "They Live" is based on two direct sources as well as being flavored by John Carpenter's own experiences in Hollywood. The original story was taken from the 1963 short story 'Eight O'Clock in the Morning' by Ray Nelson combined with a story named 'Nada' from the comic book "Alien Encounters". Nelson's story involved a man (George Nada) who was hypnotized by a stage hypnotist, who, when brought out of his trance, realized he (and the rest of the world) had been hypnotized as part of an alien invasion: one of the aliens discovered this and commanded him to die of a heart attack at 8:00 am. Carpenter bought the rights to both stories as the basis for the film.
Commentary: When it was released, it received a mixed reaction from the critics and never really reached an audience.. Which was a pity, because the film possessed both intelligence and sly humor (the subliminal message on a dollar bill read "this is your god" and Roddy Piper's quote in the bank: "I'm here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I'm all out of bubblegum.") John Carpenter took every cliché about alien invasions, mixed well with Phillip K Dick paranoia and social commentary and created a scathing critical satire about society in general and its slavish devotion to conformity and conspicuous consumption.
- To emphasize the "everyman" aspect of the movie, none of the characters have last names in the film (except for closing credits) except for the female lead, Holly Thompson (played by Meg Foster.) Strangely enough, she's also the only human George kills throughout the movie.
- "They Live" at Wikipedia
- "They Live" at the official John Carpenter website
- London Times review of "They Live" reprinted on the John Carpenter website
- "They Live" script
- "They Live: Jonathan Lethem Explains a Cult Classic" at Salon Magazine
- "They Live" slideshow at Salon
- "They Live" at DenOfGeek
- Roddy Piper's line about chewing bubblegum and kicking ass was not in the script, but was adlibbed from some of the things he would say at interviews during his professional wrestling career.
- The extra-long fight scene between Piper and Keith David was only scripted for 20 seconds: however, they rehearsed the fight for three weeks and played it real, only pulling the punches to the face and groin. Carpenter approved the change and kept the whole scene in the movie.
- Keith David got his role because of his previous work on "The Thing" with Carpenter. Carpenter wanted a black co-star who could stand up to Piper's character.
- The prevalence of helicopters (George is shot by a sniper from one in this movie) in Carpenter's movie's is no coincidence: Carpenter is a helicopter buff who is often credited as the "Man in the Helicopter" in his movies.