In what today would have been part 1 of an endless franchise, a nameless man tries to find a job in a city and he gets involved in an underground movement to rid the world of aliens that have replaced the upper class.
The film opens with a lonely, silent backpacking man who enters Los Angeles for the first time. He gazes admiringly at the high office buildings. The city has no work for him, though, and he enters up homeless and working at construction. Together with a newfound friend, they look at the high buildings in the setting sun and our protagonists says how he beliefs how honest, hard work will get him higher up. So far, the film is a literal expression of the American Dream.
Simultaneously, odd figures, a priest, someone who hijacks the TV channels, they say that the American Dream has been corrupted. It is an underground resistance that isn’t taken seriously. They say that “they” try to keep their high positions and keep everyone else small and obedient. According to the title, “they” are real, they live.
I am reminded of today’s teenage dystopia films such as Insurgent and The Hunger Games, but They Live plays things closer to reality. Even though the antagonists in They Live are – spoilers – aliens, the modern setting and the clear expression of the American Dream make They Live a much more direct criticism of society than any of those angsty dystopia films. Apparently, if you make your movie sufficiently detached from today’s society by setting it in some far future, you can afford to make the antagonists humans, but put your dystopia in today’s era and it is safer to make the antagonists inhuman. In this I am also reminded of the classic TV miniseries V (1983) from the same era, in which reptilian aliens become our overlords while they hide behind human masks. Who knows, director John Carpenter may have been inspired by that series.
The allegory of They Live is necessary to know to understand some of the choices made in this movie. There is for example a famous fight scene that seems to go on for far too long and on the surface this seems a bit like amateurish filmmaking. But if you see the fight itself as a metaphor for how people sometimes refuse to believe inconvenient truths and rather stick their head in the sand, the length of the fight suddenly makes sense. It takes effort to get people to accept what they don’t want to see; that’s why no-one accepts his sunglasses.
This isn’t understated filmmaking. They Live its rather crude and blunt in communicating its messages via the language of cinema, while simultaneously refusing to tell the viewer out loud the message. For example, when the main character for the first time thinks about joining the resistance, you briefly hear military drums in the background. Messages like these are laid on very thick when you notice it, but it is not explained in dialogues as today would happen.
Today, a film like this would probably have montages, teenage stars and voice-overs that narrate the situation in the first minutes, and flight scenes from a high perspective to introduce the “world” of the film. Today, I think the film would have succumbed to the pressure to be “epic” and the first installment of a “franchise”. The film is smaller than that with very simple blues music and a down-to-earth main character and a refusal to dumb things down. Ah, the good old days. The film also works much better because it is not “epic”. When the main character receives the special glasses, we see everything from his perspective, limited to the street level. That’s a good thing. It makes the story more personal, unpredictable and involving.
All in all, the movie is a bit… goofy. The heroes are clumsy and have funny quotes. The plot that the world is taken over is treated as simply one of those things, a setback in life for the main character. As he himself says: “I’ve had a rough couple of days.” This really sets the movie apart as a unique creation and not another run-of-the-mill dystopia story.