They Live is a 1988 American science fiction film written and directed by John Carpenter. It follows a nameless drifter referred to as “Nada,” who discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens managing human social affairs through the use of a signal on top of the TV broadcast, concealing their appearance and subliminal messages in mass media.
The film stars Keith David, Meg Foster and professional wrestler Roddy Piper.
An unemployed drifter named “Nada” (Roddy Piper) finds construction work in Los Angeles, and befriends fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who leads him to a local shantytown soup kitchen. There, Nada notices strange activity around the church; a blind preacher loudly chastising others to wake up, a police helicopter scouts them overhead, and a drifter (George Buck Flower) complains that his TV signal is continually interrupted by a man warning everyone about those in power. Nada discovers the nearby church is a front: the choir is actually an audio recording and the building is filled with scientific equipment and cardboard boxes. Nada finds a box hidden in the wall but escapes when the preacher catches him. At night, police bulldoze the shantytown. Nada returns in the morning to find the church empty, but with the hidden box still there. In an alley, he opens the box and finds dozens of sunglasses. Taking one, he hides the box of remaining sunglasses in a garbage can.
Nada discovers the sunglasses are special; after putting on a pair, he sees the world in black and white and discovers it’s not what it seems. Media and advertising hide constant totalitarian commands to obey and conform. Many in authority and wealthy are actually humanoid aliens with skull-like faces. In a grocery store Nada confronts an alien woman, who then speaks into her wristwatch notifying others about him. Two alien police officers try to apprehend Nada but he kills them, taking their guns. He goes on a shooting spree, looking for aliens in a bank. He sees one vanish using its wristwatch. Nada escapes, destroying an alien flying camera and taking Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), a Cable 54 assistant director, hostage. At her hill-top home, Nada tries to convince her of the truth. He also begins suffering headaches from using the glasses. Holly does not believe him and, catching him unaware, knocks him through a window and calls the police. Nada tumbles down a steep hillside and escapes, leaving his belongings behind.
Nada returns to the alley, where he finds the garbage can, where he hid the other glasses, empty. He sees and enters a nearby garbage truck, where he discovers and saves the box. Frank meets him to give him his paycheck and tells Nada—now considered a wanted man—to stay away. Nada fights with Frank in a long battle, trying to force him to put on a pair of sunglasses. Finally, Frank puts them on and sees the truth. The two rent a hotel room to discuss their predicament. Gilbert (Peter Jason), a member of the shantytown, discovers them and notifies them about a secret meeting with other activists.
There, Nada and Frank are given contact lenses to replace their glasses. They learn from the bearded man’s broadcast that the aliens control Earth as their third world, depleting its resources and causing global warming before moving on to other planets. The aliens use a signal to camouflage themselves; destroying its source will allow everyone on Earth to see their true form. Frank is given an alien wristwatch, a complex radio and teleportation device. Holly appears, apparently joining the cause before apologizing to Nada. However, the police suddenly attack the meeting, killing anyone in sight, while Nada and Frank are cornered fighting their way out. Frank accidentally opens a temporary portal by throwing the watch, through which the two jump into a network of underground passages.
The two find the aliens in a grand hall celebrating with their elite human collaborators. The homeless drifter from earlier, now a well-dressed collaborator, believes the two to be collaborators as well. He takes them on a tour of the passages, revealed to link the alien society, including a space travel port. A further passage leads to the basement of Cable 54 station, the source of the signal. The two then launch an attack through the building to find the broadcaster on the roof, before meeting Holly and taking her along. As Nada climbs to the signal broadcaster, disguised as a satellite dish, Holly kills Frank. Revealed to be a collaborator, she takes aim at Nada and persuades him to stop as an alien police helicopter hovers overhead. Nada complies by dropping his weapon, but then retrieves a hidden pistol from his sleeve and kills her. He then shoots and destroys the broadcaster before being killed by the aliens, giving them the finger as his last gesture. With the signal destroyed, humans discover the aliens in their midst.
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