They Live begins with the hero, “Nada,” coming to LA after leaving Denver, Colorado(this was the 80s, remember) with work having “dried up.” Nada is disenchanted with the capitalist elite, but is nowhere near taking up arms against it. Then he comes to posses some sun glasses that allow him to distinguish the goulish-looking aliens from humans. He is at first confused and disoriented, but it “clicks” when he sees that the aliens are the rich and that Reagan is an alien. He almost immediately goes on a one-man final solution campaign killing the aliens. One might argue that the aliens, by disguising themselves as human civilians, are illegal combatants in an undeclared war and thus are deserving of execution. But he doesn’t ponder the moral dilemma nor does her ever ask himself whether there might be “good aliens.” It is simply accepted that moral standards that apply to humans do not apply to aliens. “How many people did you kill,” he is asked. “Not people,” he responds. There are no alien children, so that particular moral dilemma does not come up.
Physical disgust plays a major role in the devaluing of the aliens. Though we assume Nada is animated by a hatred of Reaganomics, the first thing that he says against the aliens is not a condemnation of their “exploitation,” instead he attacks them for their ugliness. Speaking to a human woman and an alien woman he can now tell apart, he says:
You know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.
You? You’re OK.
Real fucking ugly!
I take these glasses off,
she looks like a regular person,
doesn’t she, huh?
Put them on ? formaldehyde face!
Later, an alien tells him: “You look as shitty to us as we do to you.” “Impossible,” he scoffs. We’ll come back to this point later.
As he is going on his execution spree, Nada gets away by kidnapping a pretty woman named Holly and forcing her to drive to her apartment, where it’s evident she has money. He tries to get her to wear the sunglasses, but before he can she pushes him out a window, nearly killing him. She calls the police and then picks up the glasses.
Nada gets away and eventually makes contact with an anti-alien resistance group. During the group’s meeting, there is an argument reminiscent of that between mainstreamers and vantardists:
Time to stop talking about it,
trying to figure out how it happened.
– Now we start spilling some blood.
– Wait a minute, wait a minute!
It’s not working!
We don’t stand a chance
with a few guns and grenades.
So, what are we supposed to do?
We bide our time.
We seek out and locate their signal
and shut it off. Wake people up!
Nobody stops to consider if the other side might have a point. No one asks the question “yes, there is unemployment, recessions, etc., now, but didn’t those bad things happen before the aliens came? Are things actually getting worse?” When Nada sees an alien and a human co-worker talking about how the alien got the promotion and the human didn’t, he assumes it must be the aliens helping their own kind. But maybe the aliens are just smarter? After all, they developed starfaring technology.
It wouldn’t be an allegory for neo-nazism without Feds and incompetence in regards to recognizing them. Remember Holly? Nada meets her at the movement meeting, where he assumes she must have used the glasses and learned the truth. The meeting is then raided by the Feds. Nada escapes, but the viewer assumes most at the meeting were killed or captured. At the meeting her learns that Holly happens to work at the place where the alien brainwashing transmitter is. And she somehow got away when the meeting was raided. But Nada doesn’t suspect a thing until she betrays him. The viewer is thinking, well of course she’s a fed, why would a pretty woman with money involve herself in the movement? Nada fits the neo-nazi stereotype much better:
My old Daddy
took me down to the river,
kicked my ass,
told me about the power and the glory.
I was saved.
He changed when I was little.
He turned mean
and started tearing at me.
That’s why I ran away
when I was 13.
He tried to cut me once.
Big old razor blade.
He held it up against my throat.
I said, “Daddy, please ?”
He just kept moving back and forth ?
like he was sawing down a little tree.
Maybe they’ve always been with us,
those things out there.
Maybe they love it,
seeing us hate each other.
Holly aims her gun at Nada, but he shoots her first and then destroys the transmitter. The aliens have never heard of building redundancy into their systems and so everyone can now see the aliens. In the final scene of the movie, a blond woman is shtupping an alien she can now “see” and screams in horror at the Rassenschande, confirming that the aliens, like the Jews as neo-nazis see them, regard Aryan women as most beautiful, but, it is implied, only see them as fit for short-term relationships. As one of the resistance members says:
‘Deplete the planet,
move on to another.
‘They want benign indifference.
They want us drugged.
‘We could be pets.
We could be food.
‘But all we really are is livestock.’