Maybe a third of They Live is amazing. The film has three distinct parts. The first, where Roddy Piper arrives in L.A.–Piper never gets a name and L.A. never gets identified, though director Carpenter obviously expects the viewer to recognize it and understand its use–is the best. It’s a Western, sort of. Piper’s the Man With No Name, only he’s not a bounty killer or a homesteader, he’s an unemployed construction worker. Carpenter’s screenplay quickly establishes him, establishes the ground situation; it’s a sensitive look at the working homeless with matter-of-fact presentation from Carpenter. Keith David quickly shows up as Piper’s sidekick. Carpenter has a good time with the bromance. Both Piper and David’s performances are the best in this part of the film.
The second part of the film is when They Live becomes a fifties sci-fi movie set in the eighties. Thirty minutes in, Piper discovers aliens out to subjugate the human race through the all mighty dollar. Carpenter goes big with the anti-commercialism sentiment and it works. There’s also just a strange vibe to the film during this part. Gary B. Kibbe’s flat but intricate photography–which works beautifully in the first third for juxtaposing paradise against squalor–does okay for Piper’s odyssey through the “real world” but doesn’t work when cut against the black and white “sci-fi world” shots. They Live’s budget is frequently a problem, particularly in the final third, but Carpenter never embraces the visuals of the fifties sci-fi paranoia.
Then Meg Foster shows up and there’s this shaky bridge to the final third of the film, which starts as hard sci-fi (well, as hard of sci-fi as a scene out of “V”) and descends quickly into lame action movie theatrics. Carpenter’s direction is weak during this part of the picture. He doesn’t have any of the interest he had in the beginning (or the middle).
Piper does okay for most of the film. He’s likable. He can’t handle the poorly written monologues but no one could. David’s better, but he too gets some weak lines. Foster’s mostly weak. The film takes place over a few days–it’s unclear–and her character’s sort of pointless. George ‘Buck’ Flower has an amusing small part.
They Live simultaneously has too much of a budget and not enough of one. Carpenter seems somewhat disinterested in what the film could do and busies himself with chunks of it, whether it’s the opening’s Reaganomics commentary or the middle’s L.A.-bound action thrills (and an awesome, exceptionally long fist fight between Piper and David). By the finish, there’s just nothing for Carpenter to do except end the movie. The postscript gags are better than anything else in the last thirty minutes, which is a big problem.
But there’s a lot of good stuff in They Live. Enough Carpenter should’ve taken it more seriously.
Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter, based on a short story by Ray Nelson; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Frank E. Jimenez and Gib Jaffe; music by Carpenter and Alan Howarth; produced by Larry J. Franco; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Roddy Piper (Nada), Keith David (Frank), Meg Foster (Holly), George ‘Buck’ Flower (Drifter), Peter Jason (Gilbert) and Raymond St. Jacques (The Street Preacher).