John Carpenter worked so hard at filmmaking during the early 1980s that, when he finally took some time off, he found that the world had changed around him. There were increasing numbers of homeless people, entire families who had lost there houses and were living in the streets. The people who were doing well didn't care, and even felt like they were being victimized by the homeless.
Carpenter worked under a deal that gave him full creative control. The trade-off was a limited budget that guaranteed that his movies would be profitable. This made They Live very difficult to film, as many scenes had to be shot twice, with different makeup. He wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym "Frank Armitage," a reference to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror." The screenplay is based on Ray Nelson's short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning."
Nada, played by wrestler Roddy Piper, has just rolled into town and is looking for work. A street preacher he passes is railing against "our owners," who have corrupted our spirit and to whom our leaders have sold us out. A couple of short scenes follow, which are more than the filler they might seem: a man stares at a bank of television sets, oblivious to the world, and a woman talks about how television allows her to escape reality. As Nada sits down in the street to go to sleep for the night, a helicopter flies overhead. Carpenter here foreshadows a whole bunch of plot elements in a very short time and without any dialogue, at least no dialogue in its true sense of a conversation between at least two people.
Nada finds work at a construction site and befriends Frank, played by Keith David, who shows Nada to a homeless camp where he can stay. Frank and Nada have contrasting views on the country's situation: Frank is outraged that the wealthy continue to grow wealthier at the expense of average men and women who find it increasingly difficult to make a living, while Nada simply has faith in America and believes that everything will work out in time. The camp residents gather around a TV in the evening, but the signal is broken in on by a broadcast that speaks of the same conspiracy the preacher had spoken of. The interruption of the regular television signal creates a physical reaction in the viewers, who experience headaches.
Nada notices odd activity at a church across the street, and investigates. The street preacher is there, along with a laboratory and many boxes. Frank vehemently warns Nada not to get involved, as he feels lucky just to have a job and doesn't want any trouble. Shortly afterward, in what resembles a military action against US citizens, the police raid the church and raze the camp.
Nada later pulls a box from the smoldering church, and finds that it contains the sunglasses that were being made in the lab. The sunglasses have a startling effect: they reveal that signs, billboards and printed materials hide subliminal messages with commands such as "obey," "consume" and "no independent thought." Weirder still, some people's faces have a monstrous, skeletal appearance when viewed with the shades. Nada is not good at keeping his mouth shut, and when he engages one of the creatures, he's surrounded by a horde of them who use wristwatch transmitters to call in his description. The responding police are also monsters, so Nada kills them, takes their guns, and goes out to raise hell.
Nada's exploits get his face plastered all over the news, and straight-walking Frank wants nothing to do with him. Frank is so resistant to learning the truth that he fights Nada for five full minutes to avoid donning the glasses. The monsters are eventually revealed to be aliens who rob the Earth of its resources and turn the planet into their own Third World nation. Earth's leaders are paid handsomely to join the conspiracy. Many of the police are aliens, and those who aren't are in their employ.
There is a strong satirical element to many of the scenes involving the glasses. The things are everywhere, look otherwise like normal people, and are seen speaking on television and shopping for groceries. They gossip as they get their hair done, and most people are oblivious to their grotesque appearance.
A great element of this story is that much of the film goes by before we find out what's really happening, so They Live relies on its images to tell its story. This is contrary to most horror or science fiction, where an exposition scene explains the situation. Much of this film has gone by before that occurs, and in the meantime the protagonists are left guessing. The only appropriate response for the action-oriented Nada is to go forth guns-a-blazin'.
This makes Piper a good casting choice. He's not a good actor, but he isn't required to express a large range of emotions or even to deliver a lot of lines. Carpenter employs something of a comic-book aesthetic here, which might cause some to take the film and its message less seriously. That was, however, his stylistic choice, and Piper's exaggerated, wrestler-style delivery gives him a larger-than-life image that fits this aesthetic well. As a former homeless teenager, he is very sympathetic towards the role. He's also suited for the film's many action sequences. It doesn't look as though stuntmen were in the budget, and the film is better for it.
The scenes that showed reality in black and white were a statement that our reality has been colorized. Characters are repeatedly shown as having their realities shaped by television. Carpenter still insists that They Live is a documentary, and it is if anything even more relevant today. When jobs were lost to automated manufacturing in the 1980s, it was promoted as an opportunity for workers to educate and retrain for better jobs. With offshoring, even those jobs for the educated have been taken away, and the only new work that has been made available consists of low-paying service and retail jobs. Opportunity is dead. Anyone who dissents gets branded a "liberal," as though that is some kind of badge of shame. Fear of terrorism and, later, outrage over Janet Jackson's boob have given politicians carte blanche to implement policies that restrict the freedom that is supposed to be the great thing about living in the US. None of those cats are going to be getting back in the bag anytime soon.
Connections: the gateway opened by the wristwatch echoes the scene from Star Wars in which the rebels jump down the garbage chute.