Of all the film­mak­ers who came to promi­nence dur­ing that gold­en late ‘70s/early ‘80s era of gen­re film­mak­ing, John Carpenter was the chameleon of the pack.  He was com­fort­able at tack­ling dif­fer­ent gen­res like his direct­ing hero Howard Hawks, con­fi­dent­ly pass­ing back and forth between hor­ror, sci-fi and action.  For the most part, his work was not per­son­al in the way the films of con­tem­po­raries like George Romero or David Cronenberg were.  He was more inter­est­ed “deliv­er­ing the goods” than deliv­er­ing a mes­sage.

Those afore­men­tioned qual­i­ties of his work make They Live a fas­ci­nat­ing anom­aly in the Carpenter fil­mog­ra­phy.  The dry humor, the action and the gen­re ele­ments are all there… but they are all focused around com­mu­ni­cat­ing a very direct and explic­it social mes­sage that you rarely see in his films.  It was a depar­ture worth tak­ing because They Live is one of Carpenter’s finest films.

The premise basi­cal­ly uses the “alien inva­sion” plot arche­type as a vehi­cle for a cri­tique of late ‘80s American soci­ety.  Its oft-bat­tered hero is John Nada (Roddy Piper), a home­less man who comes to Los Angeles in search of work.  While liv­ing in a shan­ty­town, he dis­cov­ers some sort of street-lev­el con­spir­a­cy involv­ing the secret pro­duc­tion of sun­glass­es.  Before he can fig­ure it out, cops vio­lent­ly roust the shan­ty­town under mys­te­ri­ous pre­tences.

John escapes the raid and gets his hands on one of those sets of sun­glass­es.  When he puts them on, he dis­cov­ers some­thing he couldn’t have dreamed of: they allow him to see that the city is full of aliens who dis­guise them­selves as humans.  Even worse, they hyp­no­tize the unwit­ting human sheep around them through a vari­ety of hid­den mes­sages in print form (“Obey,” “Consume,” etc.).  John decides to fight back and quick­ly dis­cov­ers that human nature is as big a foe as his alien ene­mies.

The end result is very pop­u­lar with cult movie audi­ences and with good rea­son.  They Live is a very con­fi­dent and skill­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed blend of sci-fi with action and thriller ele­ments, uti­liz­ing a unique vari­a­tion on tra­di­tion­al three act struc­ture in which each act gets its own full half hour.  The first act is almost like a Twilight Zone episode that sets up the con­cept in a slow-burn style.  This is fol­lowed by a sec­ond act that expos­es us to the con­spir­a­cy through the hero’s eyes and clos­es with a dynam­ic third act that real­ly shows the full extent of the alien inva­sion while pay­ing off the sto­ry with plen­ty of excite­ment.  Better yet, the switch between the­se acts total­ly upends what the view­er is expect­ing from the plot and push­es things in a new, sur­pris­ing direc­tion each time.

The demand­ing, tricky struc­ture works beau­ti­ful­ly thanks to Carpenter’s pop­ulist, straight­for­ward approach to gen­re film­mak­ing.  He grounds his sci-fi con­cepts in a believ­able, down-to-earth set­ting and builds the sto­ry around an every­man hero.  He also lay­ers the story’s twists and turns with plen­ty of action.  The film is full of inspired action and chase set­pieces, all direct­ed with a craftsman’s atten­tion to detail: the raid on the shan­ty­town is par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive in this respect, using sim­ple visu­al con­cepts to anchor a scene with com­plex action and a large num­ber of cast mem­bers.

Carpenter also makes some smart cast­ing choic­es.  Pro wrestler Piper was an inspired choice for said hero and he’s amaz­ing­ly good in the role, deliv­er­ing the action with con­fi­dence but also bring­ing wit and the occa­sion­al sur­pris­ing bit of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that give per­son­al­i­ty to his pulp arche­type.  He’s mir­rored nice­ly by Keith David, who is able to match Piper in both wit and brawn and thus func­tions as an effec­tive, more cyn­i­cal coun­ter­point.  Elsewhere, Meg Foster uses her icy blue eyes and cool demeanor to add pres­ence to a small but impor­tant role and the sup­port­ing cast is fleshed out with wel­come char­ac­ter actor faves like Raymond St. Jacques, Peter Jason and George “Buck” Flower.

It should also be not­ed that Carpenter isn’t afraid to add humor to the action, most notably in a famous fist­fight between Piper and David that goes on for an epic length.  It’s easy to rev­el in the excess of this scene but if you look beyond that it’s a real­ly mas­ter­ful bit of ten­sion-and-release film­mak­ing, with laughs off­set­ting the punch­es and kicks in a way that keeps the audi­ence brac­ing them­selves to see what will hap­pen next.  Another mem­o­rable exam­ple of humor comes in a bank lob­by shootout, fea­tur­ing a line from Piper about bub­blegum and kick­ing ass that has become a leg­endary cult movie moment.

That said, what real­ly makes They Live stick with the view­er after all the bul­lets and beat­ings is its effec­tive­ly con­veyed mes­sage.  Carpenter uses his sto­ry­line to offer his tren­chant take on Reagan-era America, mak­ing the case that the “rul­ing class” has no inter­est in help­ing the peo­ple below them and would rather manip­u­late them into fight­ing amongst them­selves so they can’t wake up and see the over­all pic­ture of how those in pow­er are work­ing again­st them.  Carpenter’s use of pulpy sci-fi sto­ry hooks to deliv­er this mes­sage enhances the barbed wit — and the pas­sage of time revealed he was def­i­nite­ly on tar­get with his view of how cor­po­rate inter­ests have come to shape the direc­tion of soci­ety in the U.S.

In short, They Live is the kind of film that might be shrugged off by some as a b-movie but those view­ers are miss­ing out on one of the savvi­est, most sub­ver­sive satires to hit American the­aters dur­ing the ‘80s.  John Carpenter was nev­er braver as a film­mak­er than he was here — and any­one who can tune in to its quirky, take-no-pris­on­ers wave­length will be reward­ed with one of his great­est cin­e­mat­ic achieve­ments.