John Carpenter’s films don’t age well. Or, more accurately, they don’t mature as you do. He’s made a couple of good ones (The Thing, Starman), but more often than not they’re financially and artistically unsuccessful. He’s never repeated the success he had with the first Halloween, and he’s spent the last fifteen years barely qualifying even as a cult director. But while some may criticize his work for the violence or pulpish material, Carpenter’s main problem is his pandering nature. He always seems too conscious of getting reactions out of a rowdy Saturday night movie crowd, even if it’s just with a line of dialogue.
For the most part, They Live is one of Carpenter’s more restrained works. It’s the closest Carpenter has ever come to mimicking the 1950s SF films (sans the swearing) that he obviously loves. It has the same innocent tone mixed with subtext, except here it’s more consciously done. But ultimately it’s an ineffectual movie. The first half moves too slowly (even at a mere 90 minutes, there isn’t enough material to fill the running time), and the action scenes are neither suspenseful nor exciting. The dialogue is merely workmanlike, and though wrestler Roddy Piper plays a likable main character, he has no range at all.
However, They Live does have two things going for it. Firstly, it does what far too few Science Fiction films do: use the genre to talk politics. As the plot unfolds, we learn that aliens are exploiting the earth, treating it, as one character says, like a Third World country. Just as the aliens in the novel version of The War of the Worlds were a stand-in for the British Empire, the aliens in They Live represent American Big Business run amok. Fortunately, Carpenter isn’t overly didactic or polemic; he allows his images of bulldozers flattening shanties and rows of cops beating back squatters to speak for themselves.
Secondly, They Live has a great concept at its core: the aliens have hidden their simple directives — “OBEY”, “CONSUME”, “DON’T QUESTION AUTHORITY” — within billboards, magazines, and product labels. As a way of fighting back, a group of human rebels have created sunglasses that turn the world black and white and allow the wearers to read the messages. The highlight of the film occurs when Piper first puts on the sunglasses and realizes the subliminal messages are everywhere. As a capper to the scene, Piper, still wearing the glasses, looks at a man standing next to him and an even more disturbing truth is revealed: the aliens are hiding among us.