As a quick thought exercise: What is They Live if you strip away its political commentary?
My answer: It’s some mediocre worldbuilding and a few terrific scenes. The movie takes so long first to reveal its world’s secret in detail, then so long to get to the point where the heroes can really do much about it, that it feels like the movie is over before it started. There’s not much arc to it. So you need to really find some value in the film’s messaging and satiric content for the film to offer anything profound, or else some X-factor that makes everything around it more interesting.
So let’s break it apart, piece by piece, and I suppose it makes sense to start with the satire. They Live is a movie about a poor nameless man — listed in the credits as “John Nada” (Roddy Piper) — discovering that there is a group of conspiring aliens posing as wealthy humans exploiting the lower class by beaming hidden messaging to them in the media. The only way these aliens can be discovered is for someone to be awoken by putting on special vision goggles.
I find the movie’s aggressively unsubtle soapboxing about class disparity to be so broad that it loses all impact. Director and writer John Carpenter pretty clearly is coming at the content from a left-wing angle, but it could just as well be a Neo-Nazi message (horseshoe theory in action). It’s “I’m-14-and-this-is-deep”-level content, and it’s the raison d’être for the film. It simply did not work for me, except for a couple of moments that I’ll get to in a second.
So what about the film’s worldbuilding? It works in splashes and images, but not as an actual piece of rich fictional construction. There’s not much on a writing level to the aliens. We never get more than a few lines about why they’re here, what they want, and what the implications are. John Nada’s world is vaguely apocalyptic but also recognizably Earthly in the way so many urban dystopias in the cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s are, but that’s not really reflected in the screenplay. It works entirely on the visual and experiential level. It comes from John Carpenter.
It feels odd to list the director and his filmmaking prowess as an X-factor for a film’s effectiveness rather than the central appeal, but They Live is so in-your-face with its concept that talking about anything but the concept feels secondary. But what worked for me instead is the stuff that only Carpenter could have done with the film: There’s the black and white, almost expressionistic visualization of John Nada’s awakening, a terrific blast of stark iconography that makes the premise feel so damn cool, not hackneyed. There’s the outrageously visceral and endless fight scene, perhaps the one satiric element that felt clever to me, as the lower class soldiers literally beat each other to a bloody mess rather than unite and face down their true threat. Sacks of meat bumping into each other with no grace or virtuosity.
And, above all, there’s a bizarre, unquantifiable energy to They Live that is appealing. Piper brings a slightly inhuman physicality to the role. His theatrical reading of the “chew bubblegum” line is so unnatural and inexplicably electric that I would have guessed it was iconic even if I hadn’t heard it quoted a thousand times. Keith David is perfect at matching Piper’s bizarre on-screen presence. The whole thing is artlessly boisterous and just a hair creepy. In spite of nothing in the movie really working for me on paper, in practice it all clicks into place. It’s not a pantheon-tier movie for me, but it’s one I feel fondness for so long as I don’t have to try and articulate why.