Dystoporama Review: They Live   January 13th, 2017

Our alien overlords just tell it like it is… if you’re wearing the sunglasses.

Given the impending dumpster fire in Washington and the overall zeitgeist of the current news outlets and social media theses days, I have decided to entertain myself with science fiction. I’m planning a blog project to review dystopian films and literature as an escape and also a creative exercise. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep it up, but I’m naming the project “Dystoporama 2017” and would love to make it a year-long project, if I have the stamina and attention span.

I watched “They Live” this past weekend. It’s a 1988 film directed by John Carpenter. I’d seen it twice before, but it has been probably eighteen years since the last viewing. It was pretty much as goofy and as fun as I remembered.

The film stars former wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a drifter who arrives in Los Angeles looking for a new start and manages to find work on a construction site and a place to squat in a local homeless camp. The film is a critique and by-product of 1980s Regan-era economics, as more of the middle class are finding themselves unemployed and living on the edge of a world that seems increasingly harder to get by in. unfortunately that still resonates today, with the loss of manufacturing segment jobs and less entry-level jobs that offer true growth potential.

The inhabitants of the homeless camp spend their idle time parked in front of an open-air television set, where broadcasts are occasionally broken in by a pirate signal which features an unknown madman ranting about the true nature of the world and urging people to wake up to the true reality. “They Live while we sleep!” he screams from the TV screen.

There are also strange goings on at the nearby church, which increasingly looks to be a front for some brand of anti-government anarchists. Roddy Piper investigates, but escapes before a police raid rounds up the trouble makers. He snoops around the next day only to find a box of ordinary cheap sunglasses, but when he decides to snatch a pair, I guess because they look so fashionable, he’s in for a surprise.

The reveal of the aliens hidden amongst us, along with the constant barrage of subliminal messaging is good. While wearing the magic sunglasses Piper sees that normal billboards and magazines are replaced with generic black text reading simple commands such as “Obey” and “Do Not Question Authority” along with “Mary and Reproduce” and “Buy,” as humanity’s hidden overlords control our every action. The alien creature design and makeup is pretty neat, with the alien overlords looking like some creepy skull-face reptilians. It’s the visuals of the aliens and the simple hidden messaging that are the strong points of the film.

The third act shows brief views of behind the scenes of the alien occupation, but unfortunately the budget is pretty low and it mostly looks like underground access tunnels with signage in alien alphabets. There are a few props of a control room and satellite antennas projecting hypnotic messages, and there’s a laughable special effect on a interplanetary teleportation pad, but sadly the best of the budget went to the alien effects.

Roddy Piper’s character is pretty dim, not keeping his cover, pointing out all the ugly aliens he sees, which is an interesting difference from the story the movie was based on. He shoots his mouth off too many times and ends up having to run from the authorities.

The film shows how the government and police forces are both infiltrated by the aliens but also clueless humans duped into doing their bidding. Later turncoats and sellouts are shown cooperating with the aliens for financial gains, as well as a predictable 3rd act betrayal.

The premise of the film is a lot of fun, as is the reveal of the true nature of reality as described above. Unfortunately there is lots of padding. There are scenes which move snappy and are fun, then there are those which drag on at a molasses pace. The movie is famous for a fight scene which feels like ten minutes of two men repeatedly smashing each other, then demanding and refusing to “put on the damn sunglasses!”

The film feels like it would’ve worked better as an hour long Twilight Zone episode, as there isn’t always enough material to keep the plot chugging along. Still, even with the uneven plot and overall goofy implementation, “They Live” is a fun diversion and a sweet guilty pleasure.

This film also gave us this wonderfully-absurd lines of dialogue: “I have come here to do two things, kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.”

The film is rated R, though the action violence feels watered down by today’s standards. The most bloody scene is the long fight over the sunglasses and that’s mostly painful for its protracted length. It was also interesting that the one bit of nudity in the film is at the end and it feels tacked on. The scene features a naked woman’s shocked expression as the true nature of the lover in bed with her is revealed. It’s gratuitous, but I’ll admit my inner teenage boy was still amused.

There are rumors of a reboot/remake of “They Live” or perhaps a movie using the original short story as a basis. Searches didn’t lead to any definite news or release dates though, so the project could’ve been scrapped or is still in the planning stages.

“They Live” was based on the short story “8 O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson. A reading of the story is available on YouTube at the following link:


The original story starts with a public performance of a hypnotist and when he tells the audience to “wake up” the main character becomes fully awake, so he can see behind the illusions.

The story is very short, so there isn’t a lot of time to set things up. The main character makes some logical leaps that are a bit hard to believe, but it’s done to keep the plot narrative efficient. The ending is abrupt as well, but the story is interested in the central idea, and a drawn-out plot is not necessary.

The aliens are dubbed “fascinators,” which was a nice touch. It’s an interesting name and descriptive in how they distract and subvert humanity to do their bidding.

The story has similar ideas of the fully-awake human being able to see the true nature of the aliens, as well as the hypnotic messages hidden all around him. The story also uses televisions as a medium to transmit hypnotic messages and also keep humanity distracted, so it’s interesting to see what the movie used and built upon.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 13th, 2017 at 4:54 am and is filed under Dystoporama, Movies and TV. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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