WARNING: The author of this review loves challenging films.
They Live is based on a pulp sci-fi story about aliens who live among us and manipulate us through subliminal advertising, other mind control techniques, and sometimes, guns and bulldozers. Like most Carpenter films, its artistic, fun, intelligent and does not take itself too seriously.
As usual, Carpenter's casting is brilliant. Roddy Piper plays the good-hearted but not very bright construction worker who is both the hero and protagonist of the film. Keith David, whose character is just a little bit brighter, is his unwilling sidekick. Piper's character sees some strange goings-on in a local church, hears some weird paranoid ramblings from a street preacher, and becomes especially curious when the church is raided by 30-40 police officers and the vagrant camp where he lives is bulldozed one night. Soon after, he finds a pair of sunglasses in the now abandoned church, that literally changes his view of the world around him. The fight scene between David and Piper, while straight out of TV wrestling, is one of the most jarring and bizarre scenes in the movie - it goes on for a very long time - which nicely and subtly points out its significance in moving the plot forward. When Piper finally gets the sunglasses on David's face, he is vindicated and the last shred of doubt about his sanity disappears. From that point forward, they are both committed to saving the world from the alien menace. Further description of the plot would approach a spoiler so I won't go any further.
Both of the main characters succeed in dominating the screen, to the point that it is hard to even notice the contributions of the rest of the cast. Both actors are surprisingly good, though understandably typecast (these are, after all, two very big guys) but - who the hell is Keith David? look him up here on IMDb.com and I'm sure you'll be as surprised at I was. He's quite an accomplished character actor.
Raymond St Jacques, for all of his five or so minutes of screen time, makes a lasting impression, and Meg Foster is perfect for her ambiguity. Overall, the character development in this film is quite excellent despite the difficulty of pulling it off in a decidedly B sci-fi genre.
From an artistic and technical point of view, the film must be judged against Carpenter's other works. Carpenter has practically created his own film genre, and each of his films bears his mark very clearly. Carpenter's camera work is remarkable for its unremarkableness. He chooses not to use gimmicks and allows his cameras to tell the story without embellishing it. Like his version of The Thing, this technique fits very well in this film, as it helps the viewer suspend disbelief in what would otherwise seem as ludicrous as an episode of the X-Files.
Carpenter often makes his own soundtracks. Of these, the soundtrack for this film is very good, but terribly repetitive and, after a while, a bit grating. Nevertheless, its goofy redundancy helps to lend a comic edge to the film.
Is there a point?
I would argue that there is. Carpenter is always more interested in fun than poignancy, but he doesn't shy away from recognizing the value of the material he brings to the screen. Of all of his films, They Live is one of the most overtly political - as it carries some very clever messages about capitalism, conformity, poverty and the horror that everyday life can be for some people. This is all done, however, with a good sense of humor and an almost teenage sense of rebelliousness, all very typically Carpenter.
A great film for B-movie fans, intelligent sci-fi fans and those who enjoy film as an art form.