When unemployed drifter Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives in Los Angeles, looking for work and a place to sleep, he finds a job on a building site and shelter in a makeshift camp for the homeless. There he makes friends with Frank (Keith David), but notices something strange going on with the camp's television set when the broadcast is interrupted by a message saying that sinister forces are at work. These rogue signals, apparently pirate radio broadcasts from a madman, seem to be emanating from a nearby church, but before Nada can properly investigate the police arrive...
This science fiction satire was scripted by John Carpenter under a pseudonym, based on a short story by Ray Nelson, and looks like a reaction against the President Reagan era with attacks on the greedy, "me first" culture of money and advertising as materialism went into overdrive in the obscenely eighties encouragement to total self-indulgence. It transpires that humans are no longer running the world, but space alien corporate businessmen are, exploiting the humans to make themselves as much profit as possible, at the expense of the ever-growing underclass who are fooled into believing wealth is within their grasp.
The way Nada (who technically is never named here: he doesn't give his name at all) discovers this conspiracy is in a great scene: after retrieving a box of sunglasses from the church the police have recently ransacked, he tries a pair on to see the world is a black and white, paranoid nightmare. Advertising billboards do not publicise holidays and consumer goods, but actually proclaim slogans like "Stay Asleep", "Obey", "Watch TV" and "Marry and Reproduce". In a nice touch, money is shown be printed with the message, "This Is Your God"! Thus the old myth of subliminals being able to direct our behaviour was put to good plot use.
And that's not all, because the skull-faced aliens are living amongst us, disguised by mind-controlling signals and passing themselves off as yuppies, police and the privileged rich. Of course, it's all very well blaming the state of the world on out-of-control capitalist aliens rather than rampant capitalist people, but it's a great idea for what becomes a smart action movie; it's more effective than Brian Yuzna's contemporary, similarly-themed Society, for example, which also posited the wealthy and influential upper class as a breed of monstrous exploiters literally feeding off the poor - though the aliens here want nothing except our money and blind devotion to consuming.
Nada's repsonse to his revelation is to get hold of firearms and start blowing away every alien he sees, but he soon finds out that not everything is as black and white as it looks. While his putting on the sunglasses scene is memorable, the real stand-out sequence is where Nada tries to persuade Frank to put on the sunglasses. Frank is of the philosophy that you should not upset the status quo lest things get worse for you, leading to a lengthy fight where the two men battle each other as if they were professional wrestlers (not coincidentally, Piper was precisely that), which shows how difficult it is to fire your potential allies into action against their oppressors and the infighting amongst the lower classes pretty much guarantees that resistance against injustice will continue unchecked. Plus, it's pretty funny.
Anyway, Frank finally does put on the glasses, and the two friends are recruited by a terrorist cell to destroy the heart of the aliens' signals as our hero attempts to win over Meg Foster's human television executive. All this ends up with a tale of sacrifice, but the punchline is a good one. What makes it more uncomfortable viewing now is the gun rampage solution that, from the other side, looks dangerously close to endorsing the actual mass shootings that increasingly afflicted the United States, and given how easily it convinced us there is a sinister force at work in the world, the other consequence, the far right conspiracy theorists who embraced the film to Carpenter's horror, maybe it spun off into far less salubrious areas than intended. Perhaps They Live convinces more through satirical intentions than its straightforward bullets and explosions episodes, but it made a nice change to see a sci-fi shoot-em-up with some thought behind it, assuming you picked up on the deliberate message. Music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth.
Skillful American writer-director of supense movies, often in the science fiction or horror genres. Comedy Dark Star and thriller Assault on Precinct 13 were low budget favourites, but mega-hit Halloween kick-started the slasher boom and Carpenter never looked back.