The aliens in They live (1988) are already here, and they’ve successfully infiltrated society; walking around, doing ordinary things, disguised as people. When the hero dons a pair of special glasses he’s able to see them for what they are, along with their hidden mind-controlling messages. Outnumbered, and outgunned, he must figure out a way to defeat them — and save humanity from annihilation.
They Live presents a dystopian, Orwellian vision of mass control, in the style of the popular Hollywood monster / horror story. Terrifying aliens — a ruling elite from outer space — have total control over society. In a similar vein to the paranoid fears expressed in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), and The Thing, the alien life-form is able to pass itself off as human.
This presents humanity with a terrifying threat. It echoes the fear of society being taken over by a mysterious force — operating outside of public awareness — that uses underhand tactics to stealthy infiltrate its way into power. Once in control, this shadowy force will marginalise, and then eradicate its opponents — it’s a conspiracy theory of catastrophic proportions. Real world parallels include: the fear of communist cells operating in 1950s America, which led to McCarthyism, and are echoed in the film I Married a Communist (1949); the ‘yellow peril’, the racist anti-asian xenophobia of late 19th Century America and Europe concerning Chinese domination, which spread with the arrival of Chinese immigrants (who were themselves exploited for cheap labour); paranoid conspiracies about Zionist plots to control the world; and British fears in the late 19th Century that Imperial Germany was infiltrating the British Empire, with German spy rings covertly stealing British naval secrets.
In They Live the ruling class is not like the rest of us, and this is emphasised by the fact they are literally aliens — frightening and repugnant (when seen through special glasses). They are the alien ‘other’ living amongst us, like the aliens in the film Society (1989) who are form a controlling social elite, passing themselves of as humans, sucking up the wealth, and keeping the business between themselves. This provides a simple, but effective, metaphor of the rich controlling the working class; a theme which goes back to films like Metropolis (1927). The hero in They Live, a working class drifter, takes work where he can find it. The economy is in a severe downturn, and people are suffering from poverty and police oppression. Any dissenters are branded terrorists and systematically killed. Everything is strategically planned by the aliens, and their human supporters (who have sold out in exchange for a comfortable life).
The story is also a metaphor for rampant capitalism and an addiction to consumer culture. The hidden messages that the aliens use to control people are everywhere — in books, magazines, adverts, images, public signage, etc — are subliminally mind-controlling the population, pacifying them, manipulating their desires and motivations — perverting the very core of their human identity.
How does the ordinary person fight back? Through ingenuity, persistence, and a willingness to use force. The hero teams up with a fellow construction worker, ready to sacrifice themselves to save humanity. Their struggle reminds the audience of their own fears of powerlessness, and loss of control, which they experience in their lives. In the dramatic ending, the technology used to make the aliens look human is destroyed, revealing the aliens for the monsters they are — and providing the cathartic relief that the audience desires.