They Live (1988)

they live

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

The Scoop: 1988 R, directed by John Carpenter and starring Roddy Piper, Meg Foster, and Keith David

Tagline: You see them on the street. You watch them on TV. You might even vote for one this fall. You think they’re people just like you. You’re wrong. Dead wrong.

Summary Capsule: A wrestler combats the unseen forces of alien invaders with some big honkin sunglasses


Justin’s rating: Wait, I’ve got some bubble gum you could use!

Justin’s review: You know, I actually once did order those X-ray glasses you used to find in comic book ads. For such a low, low price, it offered a super power hereunto unavailable to anyone but Superman: The ability to see through walls, bank vaults, and — most importantly — clothes. I was a kid, so cut me some slack.

And eventually I did receive my cool new X-ray glasses, lovingly crafted out of prime cardboard stock, with two little holes punched in them for viewing. You know, I had my doubts along with my hopes, but all doubt disappeared when I slipped those glasses on for the first time. Yessir, all doubt disappeared, along with all sight. I went through a period of temporary blindness as my eyes refused to readjust from trying too hard to see through pinprick holes.

They Live was obviously inspired by those famous glasses, but in this film, the true reality can only be seen through dark shades.

Nada (wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) is our bum of a hero. Literally. Jobless, and many times shirtless, he is just your stoic hobo in need of a break. Yet instead of working his way to the top of some Fortune 500 company, Nada stumbles onto a conspiracy plot that will leave you vaguely nauseous.

Apparently, aliens have invaded Earth a while back, but nobody noticed because the country was caught up in the lovable antics of Alf. It’s also because these immensely freaky creatures have the ability to completely disguise themselves as normal people. As such, the aliens took over top levels of business and politics, leaving only the underclass untouched. So, some vague social commentary there, but we already knew that Ronald Reagan — or, at least, Nancy — was an alien, so where’s the new story?

Literally stumbling onto the plot, Nada (who is never referred to by name) uses some nifty sunglasses to see the world for how it really is. Now, these shades remind me of those giant HUD wraparounds that you see old folks wearing in retirement communities, but at least he upgrades to x-ray contacts later on in the film.

In any case, it’s pretty cool and slightly creepy to see two alternate versions of the world. The one in color is the world disguised; the other, in black and white, is the reality that humans cannot (or will not) see. Subliminal messages are everywhere, urging humanity to develop cow-like habits: “Consume,” “Marry,” “Reproduce,” “Read Mutant Reviewers,” and so on.

Underneath their human exteriors, the aliens are something out of the muscles page in Gray’s Anatomy. It’s never really explained if they’ve possessed a real person, constructed a replacement, or are using fake skin around their real bodies… but it doesn’t matter. The effect is creepy as all get out.

Nada, being the intellectual wrestling/construction worker that he is, deals with this new information in a calm, constructive manner. That is to say, he starts taunting the aliens on the street and takes up weapons to begin blasting them left and right back to slimy alien hell. Inexplicably, Nada evades capture, even though the clod is devoid of a single stealthy bone in his body.

All good heroes have sidekicks, and Nada recruits a fellow worker to bear some constitutionally ensured arms. Being the diplomat that he is, Nada’s main method of convincing his friend to put on the glasses and see the world is through meaningful dialogue. That is to say, they beat the living crap out of each other for near ten minutes.

You may not believe me, but this scene is one of the biggest male macho testosterone fests that you will ever see. They just keep punching and wailing away, which is boring for the first minute, then increasingly funny as it just… never… ends. Along with some now-famous quotes (you always wondered where the “I’m all outta bubble gum” line came from, didn’t you?), They Live has a lot to offer to any member of society that is (1) a male, and (2) wearing nacho cheese stains on his briefs.

It’s a good concept, some of the revelations are intriguing in the sort of “I wonder what I’d do” way, but there is an awful lot of bad acting here. It’s a quick romp that might feel more at home in The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, save for all the blood and naughty, naughty violence. Remember the next time you’re in court, it’s feasible to use the “they were all freaky aliens that I could only see through my sunglasses” defense to get you off the hook.

Kyle’s rating: I heard the alley scene inspired Fight Club

Kyle’s review: They Live is one of those examples of a John Carpenter film that is brilliantly inventive and interesting, yet somehow never manages to generate the sort of energy that would make it anything more than a cult classic. Which isn’t to say that “cult classic” isn’t a great thing to be. But some measure of mainstream success for a favored creator would be nice, don’t you think?

Anyway, They Live’s main story thrust (technologically advanced/magical sunglasses allow any wearer, even buff homeless types, to see the world as it really is: infested by subtly controlling aliens!) remains fun and thrilling, despite so many countless other films and stories having similar set-ups. And Carpenter’s directing and visual style is just as distinctive as his classic works (Halloween and Escape from New York), all of which makes for a memorable and exciting sci-fi treat!

So why is this one such an also-ran in the genre?

Well, I guess an important filmmaking truth to take away from They Live, and one Carpenter seemed to already know as of 1982’s The Thing, is that society’s most “manly” inhabitants don’t always come across as the most appropriately manly on the big screen.

So while Kurt Russell and the rest of the bearded cast of The Thing really sold the idea that there is some major and fairly chilled testosterone getting tossed around in the arctic circle, the macho and manly Roddy Piper just sort of fizzles as that intellectual hobo Justin observes him as. Even that much ballyhooed fight between Piper and Keith David, over David’s bizarre and insanely stubborn refusal to not try on those special sunglasses and see the world as it truly is, comes across (after a couple minutes of enjoying it as a guilty pleasure) as a weak attempt to be manly. Or maybe I’m just one of those sensitive types that can’t enjoy such examples of masculinity?


I’ve never seen some of Carpenter’s other films, like Ghost of Mars and Village of the Damned, mostly because I’ve honestly fallen asleep the handful of times I’ve tried to watch them. But as far as I’m concerned, pretty much everything post-Prince of Darkness in 1987 just seems strangely misguided in Carpenter’s oeuvre. Vampires, which I recall as being vaguely entertaining and fun, I think gets elevated more by James Woods’ typical madness than anything Carpenter brought to the table. It’s sad to say, because so much of the work he’s done rank among my favorite films. But They Live is really the beginning of the end for Carpenter’s effectiveness (barring his recent “Masters of Horror” work, which I have yet to see), and it’s so sad to observe that I don’t feel like tying in the subliminal “sleep” commands the aliens give humanity in They Live. But as long as you know the joke is there, we’re okay!



  • The infamous five and half minute alley fight
  • Near the end of the film, several guards can be seen using odd scanner devices. These are actually unaltered PKE Meter props from Ghostbusters.
  • The end of the movie features two alien film critics, very obviously modeled after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (with the trademark the camera view over “Ebert’s” left shoulder), criticising filmmakers George Romero and John Carpenter.
  • Cool how the film title fades to graffiti on the wall
  • During the manly-man fight, I love how the one guy starts cracking up when the other guy tries to break his beer bottle and disintigrates the whole thing
  • How real men die
  • The scene where Nada says “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum” was ad-libbed by Roddy Piper
  • Roddy Piper’s character never gives his name nor is he referred to by name throughout the entire movie. He is simply referred to as “Nada” in the credits. “Nada” is Spanish for “nothing”.
  • This was based on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”.

Groovy Quotes

Frank: I’ve walked a white line my entire life, I’m not about to screw that up.
Nada: White line’s in the middle of the road, that’s the worst place to walk.

Nada: Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat!

Nada: I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And I’m all out of bubblegum.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Thing
  • The Matrix
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers


  1. “Being the diplomat that he is, Nada’s main method of convincing his friend to put on the glasses and see the world is through meaningful dialogue. That is to say, they beat the living crap out of each other for near ten minutes. You may not believe me, but this scene is one of the biggest male macho testosterone fests that you will ever see.”

    I know! When I watched it last night, the only response I could make to that scene was “Men.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s