They Live is a hodge-podge of sci-fi satire, B-movie maximalism and cheesy humour that spends half its time succeeding on its own merits, and the other half venturing into so-bad-it’s-good territory.
The film’s highlights are of a piece with director John Carpenter’s great horror films (Halloween, The Thing), as Nada (Roddy Piper) stumbles onto the chilling secret that the world is controlled by “formaldehyde-faced” aliens who bombard the proletariat with concealed messages like “STAY ASLEEP” and “OBEY” (You can only see these with ‘magic’ sunglasses, natch). It’s an unsubtle message about American corporatisation that taps into the same anxiety that Invasion of the Body Snatchers so memorably evoked. Carpenter is at his best when rendering the stark black-and-white imagery of this nightmarish otherworld.
Disappointingly, They Live isn’t interested in expounding on these ideas, but rather using them as an excuse to stage extended homoerotic wrestling sequences between Nada and co-worker Frank (Keith David) or to machine-gun away countless aliens after, infamously, running out of bubblegum. There’s silly fun to be had in these sequences despite some awkward pacing. Ultimately it feels like two different movies – one thoughtful, one absurd – soldered together clumsily, high concept ideas sacrificed for generic eighties action.