This lesser known John Carpenter science fiction film is well-liked among those who know do it. It is famous on YouTube thanks to a scene involving one of the most prolonged fight scenes I can remember in a film, probably included to showcase the wrestling skills of the star of the film Roddy Piper. If that is all you know about the film then you are missing a nice paranoid action thriller
America is in the grip of a recession and unemployed drifter Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives in Los Angeles looking for work on a building site. At the end of the day’s work he has nowhere to stay. One of the other workers on the site Frank (Keith David) takes him back to shanty town where he stays and Nada can get food and shelter from a charity group working out of the local church.
As Nada settles in he sees some old guys watching a TV set showing aspirational programmes in a tent and adverts for extravagant luxuries while they are sitting with nothing. A pirate broadcast interrupts with a strange message from some radical political group. Nada notices a blind street preacher standing nearby mouthing the exact words from the speech being given on the broadcast and starts to think that something strange is going on. He keeps an eye on the church and the following day he sneaks inside. The sound of a choir singing turns out to be a tape playing. He sees that there is a meeting including the guy from the pirate broadcast and the people working in the church they are talking about their need to recruit more people to spread their message.That night the police raid the church and then they bulldoze the shanty town brutally beating anyone resisting. Nada finds the police beating the crap out of the street preacher and the pirate radio guy round the back of the church.
In the aftermath of the raid everyone is looking for any of their belongings that they can salvage. Nada goes into the church and opens a secret panel he had found on his last visit and grabs a box hidden in there. Out in an alley in private he has a look inside is puzzled to find it is full of sunglasses. He takes a pair and hides the box in a bin. Once out in the street he put the glasses on and sees the world in a new way. Everything is bleak monochrome with brutal modernist architecture and advertising hoardings contain giant propaganda slogans like Obey, Reproduce, and Don’t Question Authority. Without the glasses everything seems normal again. Nada goes to a news stand and sees the magazines are the same slogans over and over again
A businessman comes to the news stand to buy a paper. Nada puts the glasses on a sees a nightmare instead a face, with big silver eyes and transparent skin. He looks around and sees most people look the same with glasses on but a number of people have the same nightmare faces Nada goes into a supermarket and confronts one of the aliens saying “You know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.” They aliens realise he can see them and the woman talks to communicator disguised as an expensive watch to report him
Nada goes out outside and puts what he’s seeing together with what he’s overheard from the group back at the church. Two cops arrive, both aliens. One of them tries to offer him a deal but he’s having none of it and manages to get one of their guns and shoots both of them dead. He gets the other guns from the police, including a shotgun in their car, and shoots a floating robot camera visible only with the glasses on.
More police are on the way so ducks into building to get away from them and discovers he’s walked into a bank with armed guards and several aliens. He quickly recovers his composure, cocks the shotgun and says “I have come to here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubble gum,” then starts gunning down as many aliens as he can. He sees one alien touch his watch then disappear right in front of him. The cops arrive and Nada has to shoot his way out.
Nada gets to a car park with the authorities not far behind. He’s see a woman Holly (Meg Foster) getting to her car and takes her hostage, forcing her to drive him to her house, a large expensive place overlooking the valley Holly works at the local TV station as assistant programme director. She acts cold towards Nada passively co-operating but nothing more. Nada tries to explain and apologise but Holly makes it clear he’s in charge because he has a gun and nothing more. Nada tries to get her to put on the glasses but she tells him it’s no use since she’ll just say she sees what he wants her to see. Nada is tired from wearing the glasses, he is feeling high and his head hurts. He needs to rest but can’t trust Holly. Holly finally agrees to help Nada but instead pushes through her window.
Nada is on the run so he heads to the building site and tries to get Frank to help him but thinks Nada’s gone crazy, since to everyone else it looks like he just went psycho with a gun. Frank gets him some food and tells him to go away. Nada goes to alley where he left the box of sunglasses and retrieves them just before a garbage truck takes them away. He meets up with Frank again tells him to try on the glasses. Frank thinks Nada really is crazy and refuses but Nada does not take not for an answer. The two men fight and fight and really pound the crap out of each other. Frank manages to beat Nada down several times but Nada gets up each time and just starts again ”Put on the glasses”. It’s very long scene and is clearly just a pure indulgence for wrestling fans. It ends with Nada putting the glasses on the barely conscious Frank but finally he can see it too, the real world under the aliens.
Nada and Frank get in touch with the church group and learn that they are having a meeting at a community hall to discuss what they know and plan what they are going to do about it. Some want to carry on with giving out glasses and contact lenses. Others want to try to go for the source of the signal the aliens are using to hide their presence and influence from the human population. They know it is being transmitted with the TV broadcast signal. That’s when Holly chips in with information that the signal leaves the studio clean.
Nada goes to talk to Holly about how she got there but just at that moment armed police raid the building shooting at people indiscriminately. Frank and Nada struggle with one alien cop and manage to get his watch from him. They kill the cop an activate some switch that open a trap door to an underground network of tunnels. Once safely in the tunnels no-one questions their presence they are free to explore the place, including a teleporter that lets the aliens travel the millions of light years to their home world.
One of the old men from the shanty town is there and thinking Nada and Franks have joined up with the aliens like he has he gives them a guided tour of the place. Showing off he takes them into the TV studio. He’s pretty shocked when they start shooting equipment and aliens. They discover that the signal is being broadcast from the roof and as they make their way up there they meet Holly who comes with them.
Nada heads up to the roof first and finds te alien signal device. He thinks that Holly and Frank are just behind him but that traitor Holly has already shot Frank dead and now tries to kill Nada before he can destroy the device but Nada manages destroy it before he dies. The whole world wakes up in shock to discover the hideous alien creatures living amongst us.
I know this film can be a bit cheesy sometimes but it has a great story and it does not try to what Carpenter is saying abou the world at the time that this was made, that the rich are parasites who feed on poverty and are so divorced from the way the poor live they are like aliens living in different world. It fit the politics of 80s perfectly and as the world has swung back into another recession it still resonates. I really liked contrast of the bleak world seen through the glasses with the apparently normal world. If you haven’t seen it I really recommend that you do