Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter (credited as Richard Armitage)
Based on the short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson
Genre: science fiction
Roddy Piper as Nada
Keith David as Frank
Meg Foster as Holly
George 'Buck' Flower as Drifter
Peter Jason as Gilbert
Raymond St. Jacques as Street Preacher
Jason Robards III as Family Man
Down-on-his-luck construction worker finds a pair of sunglasses that lets him see the aliens among us who are keeping most of the population repressed.
With a plot like that, what can you say? Seriously, if you need to be convinced that John Carpenter is a bona fide, serious, no fooling, ought-to-have-his-DNA-preserved genius, this is the movie to watch. Look at that cast. Look at that plot. Watch the movie and see how he took those raw materials and a very low budget and turned it into a minor masterpiece.
Former WWF and WCW wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper displays flashes of real acting talent; it's kind of a shame that he never got to try any good roles as an action hero. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, including Jason Robards III (yes, he's the son of that Jason Robards), but they turn in workmanlike performances.
They Live manages to be political without being preachy and without dating itself too severely, which is no mean feat. It takes place in a kind of "essence of Reagan '80s", where "the elite" are getting more and more of the money and power and everyone else is just scraping by. Nada is a down-on-his-luck construction worker living with a group of homeless people in a sort of latter-day Hooverville, where he encounters some odd conspiracy theories about how people's troubles are being orchestrated.
Later, Nada finds a pair of sunglasses. When he puts them on, the world looks different. Suddenly, he can see that all the billboards and advertisements say things like "Stay Asleep", "Obey", "Consume", and "Submit to Authority". Much more alarming, he can see that many of the people on the street are actually aliens. He finds an underground movement of people who know about the aliens, and gets involved in the struggle to expose them and the humans who are working with them before the aliens take over the planet entirely.
I know, it still sounds kind of corny. But unless you're the sort of person who seriously dislikes science fiction, give it a try. Carpenter's cinematography is outstanding; there are a lot of little touches used to great effect, like the fact that when Nada has on the special sunglasses, he sees everything in black and white. The other tremendously impressive thing about the movie is that it doesn't feel like a low budget film. The special effects are very well done, and never look like compromises. This is a hugely underrated film.
Thanks to Templeton for tipping me off that the "Obey" signs in this movie were the inspiration for "Obey" stickers by the guy who thought up Andre the Giant has a Posse.