John Nada (Roddy Piper) is an unemployed drifter who finds construction work in Los Angeles and befriends Frank Armitage (Keith David). Frank takes him to “Jesseville” – a shantytown for the homeless – where John takes up residence and stumbles across some strange goings-on in the local church.
When the church is raided by police one night, John finds a box of sunglasses in the wreckage, which he hides after taking a pair for himself.
He soon discovers the sunglasses are far from normal and that wearing them allows a person to see the world as it really is: dominated by aliens and full of subliminal advertising messages to ensure mankind sticks to consuming and obeying whilst small surveillance drones monitor everybody’s movements on the streets.
He returns for the rest of the sunglasses and convinces Frank, after a lengthy punch-up (Piper and David lay into each other for more than five minutes in one of the best movie fist-fights ever), to wear a pair too.
The two men then join the resistance where they learn that the aliens use a special broadcast to hypnotise people into not seeing the truth around them and that stopping the broadcast is the only way for the world to wake up.
There’s a lot to like in They Live and director John Carpenter manages to squeeze everything from his limited budget, combining sci-fi and horror elements with biting satire and action.
The central concept of the sunglasses allowing one to see the world as it really is – black and white and filled with propaganda through advertising and commercialism in a seemingly free society – is clever and very effective.
If you don’t let the budget restrictions or Piper’s dubious acting put you off, this is one hell of a B-Movie. The film was adapted from the short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Faraday Nelson and the credited onscreen screenwriter, Frank Armitage, is in fact Carpenter himself.