Written and directed by John Carpenter, They Live is loosely based on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”. While the short story is only a handful of pages long, it establishes many themes, motifs, and symbols that carry over into They Live. In fact, the film contains a surprisingly substantial amount of commentary on universal ideas such as totalitarianism, psychological manipulation, and censorship. It’s probably one of the best mass surveillance films next to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But what makes the film enduring the most is that it is one heck of an entertaining thrill ride.
From its pithy one-liners (such as: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum.”) to its cool as ice blue collar characters, the film has its way of blending together multiple genres with such ease and self-control. With its outcast lead characters, the film plays off of the biracial pairing so very common in 80s action films. But unlike so many of those buddy films, They Live has no business addressing race as an issue. Instead, the film is more concerned with the mission at hand, which evokes the characteristics of a contemporary western mixed with the tension and concepts present in dystopian science fiction.
The film is strangely grounded for something that features aliens taking control over the government. Immediately as the film begins, with its introduction to Piper’s vagabond character that is very Rambo-esque, there’s an immediate sense that it has a more street level sensibility than most other 80s sci-fi films. This has to do a lot with how Carpenter handles the production design, first emphasizing a grungy style that then contrasts with the clean, bureaucratic visuals of the upper class civilians. The film really has its way of establishing the varying social classes without placing too much emphasis on the inequality. By layering the sociopolitical commentary within the film’s backdrop, Carpenter is able to hone in on the action and characters without overcomplicating things with preachy exposition.
Though there are some questionable decisions made by the characters that are borderline cheesy, They Live is a shoot ‘em up sci-fi film of complete enjoyment. With Carpenter at the helm, the film contains many of the director’s great techniques including a fantastic synthesized score with a country vibe reminiscent of Ennio Morricone. Overall, it’s one of Carpenter’s most underrated film efforts that definitely deserves to be revisited on home video.