They Live (1988) - Film Analysis

Usually films that dive into conspiracy theories remain the topic of discussion long after their initial theatrical release, with They Live being no exception. This film is among several films which feature a storyline revolving around a secret society like the Illuminati, including Stanley Kubrick’s last film “Eyes Wide Shut”. These films require you to stop and consider its underlying message and reasoning. Directed by John Carpenter, who has had an exceptional film career with hits including Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing, They Live is definitely one of Carpenter’s most unique and discussed films. Despite the movie recently turning 25 years old, it continues to fascinate a younger audience and is considered to be one of Hollywood’s biggest cult classics.
The film starts with our main character Nada, a drifter whom we observe attempting to survive by any means possible. After obtaining a construction job and a place to stay among a community of fellow homeless people, he discovers a secret undercover operation at a church nearby which is eventually shut down by law enforcement. Stirring his curiosity, he investigates and discovers inside the church a box left behind containing seemingly ordinary sunglasses. However as he discovers, these sunglasses open his eyes to the reality that the upper class is populated by aliens disguised as humans and are secretly ruling the world.
On the surface, there isn’t anything too great about the film other than it starring WWF superstar “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who creates some good action sequences which are entertaining to watch. The acting isn’t superb and the special effects are not fantastic either. It also has some cheesy one liners which may bring back memories from the 1980‘s. And maybe watching Nada struggle to make it in the world and discovering the biggest undercover conspiracy to humankind might keep you watching to see his final outcome. But when it comes down to it, the film truly does feel like a B-movie.
However what makes They Live so good is its underlying message to the viewer.
Almost from the very beginning of the film, there appears to be a dark mood set. Something in the world doesn’t appear normal as we notice an increasingly large population are living in poverty. Every now and then a helicopter can be seen flying above monitoring everyones every move. Police converge onto scenes of large gatherings in order to disperse crowds from forming a revolution. Communication and the media is heavily monitored and controlled by the upperclass. After watching They Live you might begin to realize that so many of these distinct features of this city are slowly becoming reality to our own real world.
The film sends the message to the viewer that members of upper class society are almost of a different species from the rest of us. That they don’t think like us, act like us or reason like us yet they recruit the lower class to do their dirty work. Critics of their movement for domination of Earth are quickly silenced to keep the unsuspecting public from knowing who truly rules the world.
In one particular scene early in the film, the phrase “They live, we sleep” is seen spray painted on a wall. This message is very powerful, which says that the public is unaware that the upperclass are actually alien beings and are unaware of how much power they have over the world. Nada will attempt to open the eyes of his new coworker and friend Frank, but he will discover that it will not be easy (especially after a very long, eight minute hand to hand fight sequence.) His friend Frank does not want to hear what Nada has to say because he thinks his friend is crazy to believe there’s a massive coverup on how the world is really being run. This is the typical mindset of so many people who do not want to believe secret societies exist, maybe even perhaps one in particular that might have governmental authority and controls much of the worlds resources. But eventually Frank will have no other choice but to have his eyes opened after seeing the very blatant evidence for a worldwide coverup. 
Another one of the films most striking scenes is when Nada leaves through the back of a bank after shooting some aliens inside and discovers an unmanned drone hovering above him. What makes this scene so important is that this film was made before unmanned drones even existed. Yet today they do, and can be found in numerous places all over the world monitoring us. And with the addition to governments attempting to enforce more internet surveillance, such as the Stop Online Privacy Act in the United States, privacy is becoming extinct in the 21st century.
Eventually the humans who are aware of the aliens presence get together for a meeting to discuss how to stop with the worldwide takeover. However as we see, it’s clear that the meeting is extremely secretive and that, for the humans sake, word cannot get out about it to the aliens. Once they gather, they try out new technology developed to spot aliens more easily in hopes of stopping them from progressing in their quest for world domination. Little do they know that in the crowd is a human spy working for the aliens who alerts them of the meeting. This results in the films biggest shootout between the aliens and humankind with our two main characters Nada and Frank escaping using a high-tech piece of alien equipment into what they discover to be the aliens underground base.
It’s a party atmosphere in the alien base. A celebration is commencing for the humans who have partnered, or as the film says “sold out,” to their cause. The aliens consider it to be a partnership, but it’s clear the aliens call all the shots and have the authority. A little later in the base, they discover it’s actually the headquarters for Cable 54, a local news station that’s been sending out propaganda and other brain washing material to an unsuspecting public. It’s been long suggested that secret societies such as the Illuminati have been able to control what goes on in public broadcast with their massive empire of authority and finances. It becomes clear to Nada and Frank that they must destroy the communication link if they are going to have any chance of saving Earth from the aliens.
Nada and Frank eventually make it to the transmitter (which is disguised as a satellite dish) but it comes with the ultimate cost for both of them, sacrificing their lives to open the eyes of the world. One can only speculate what happens after the film ends. Do humans finally band together and drive away the aliens from Earth? Or do the aliens launch a full out assault on mankind after they are exposed?

They Live is by far no piece of cinematic excellence, but what it does well is communicate a message so thought provoking that might force you stop and think about the world you really live in. It’s subtle enough where it doesn’t tell you to think like secret societies exist, but gives you some good evidence through how the films world and our world are slowly becoming similar. Rising poverty in developed nations and near total annihilation of privacy are just some of the ways our two worlds are comparable. It truly is a movie worth watching.