John Carpenter's "They Live" could easily have gone either way - an overstuffed failure, or a witty commentary on modern society. Fortunately, with Carpenter's steady hand, this film assumes the latter - it makes remarks about social inequality which are relevant even near-twenty years on, taking the viewer on an extremely fun ride.
Needless to say, the film wastes not a second in establishing its social context - our protagonist (Roddy Piper) is a down-on-his luck drifter, unable to find work, seemingly kept down by "the man". As he walks past someone, their glazed-over eyes staring into a window full of televisions, one must consider that the considerations this film makes are about as subtle as a brick being hurled through that very window, but nevertheless, Carpenter raises important issues effectively.
Eventually scoring a job on a work-site, Nada becomes fast friends with Frank (Keith David), a hard-done-by individual himself, yet Nada initially sees him as simply being too impatient with society and expecting too much from life. Conversely, Nada is of the belief that the everyman can succeed in American society, but alas, his stance is about to change drastically.
In his travels, Nada also comes across a series of strange television transmissions, spouting what is dismissed by most as the verbiage of madmen, urging the everyman to rise up and revolt against their controlling oppressors, who are supposedly preventing racial diversity, allowing an underclass to grow, and exerting their hegemonic powers (primarily money) to these ends. Furthermore, Nada also encounters a shady group of individuals posing as a choir group, whilst something far more sinister is quite abundantly afoot.
Things very quickly turn to chaos as a fleet of police officers arrive, riot shields and all, and at this stage, it's all quite the exciting mystery. The real treat of the film comes when Nada discovers a box of sunglasses, and upon trying on a pair, discovers that hidden messages are placed all about our world, instructing us to "obey", "watch TV" and have "no independent thought", among other things. It's a fantastic concept, and everything about its execution is extremely pleasing to the eye - the monochrome representation of the world through these glasses, and also the alteration of everyday objects such as magazines to appear as blank slates with instructions written on them.
Further still, those already assimilated by this force assume a ghoulish facial appearance when the glasses are worn, as evidenced by Nada's encounter with an aloof businessman. As with The Thing, Carpenter and his team are to once again be praised for their stellar effects work - the skeletal guise of those already "infected" is both terrifying and authentic looking, having stood the test of time fantastically.
Piper's reaction to these ghouls is gold - his natural defenses invite him to make jokes at the hideousness of them, naturally offending those around him observing, who have not seen the world through Nada's magical glasses. It isn't long before Nada's actions earn him the attention of a great number of these things, and he is ultimately forced to resort to violence in order to survive, quite an interesting commentary in itself when considered within the context of freedom fighting and revolutions.
Nada's transformation into a certified baddass is a little too fast, but it's so much fun and so enjoyable to watch that we don't care. Nada, shotgun in hand, now goes about dispatching as many of these beasts as possible, and if that wasn't task enough, he becomes a wanted man as a result, with both the monsters and the police (who believe him to be a communist freedom fighter) on his tail.
Nada naturally has a difficult time convincing people of what's going on, resulting in him both being knocked out of a window and down a hill by a woman, and engaging in a refreshingly gritty five-minute slug-fest with Keith David's character whilst trying to convince him to try the sunglasses on. Much of the difficulty also seems to stem from the fact that most people are likely to simply humour a seeming madman wielding a gun rather than actually try the glasses on and see if he's telling the truth.
The film's final set piece is a wildly overblown (in the best sense possible) war between those awakened to the truth, and those not, with bullets and explosions hurtling in every direction. It has a degree of inherent cheese to it, but again, this is in the best way possible - two warring sides alternatively hiding behind bins for cover and then firing at their enemy has never, and probably never will be, so much fun. As Piper and David sweep through a building, destroying waves of soldiers in hails of bullets, what could have been a conventional and tiresome shooting exercise is kept vibrant due to Carpenter's original use of imagery and superb soundtrack. By the time They Live reaches its end, there are genuinely surprising turns and unexpected departures, reaching a climax which, through his actions, solidifies Piper's Nada as an action hero and role model for the everyman tucked away in most of us.
They Live never endeavours to take itself too seriously - sure, it has a message to it, that we must remember to take a breather from buying things we don't need and working 40-hour weeks every so often, but even in the final moments of the film, we're left belly laughing at what is an all-around extremely entertaining film. Piper, surprisingly enough, is a believable protagonist, bringing both the presence and macho charisma that his other vocation requires, and Keith David is a likewise entertaining disgruntled sidekick. John Carpenter is something of an unrecognised auteur, frequently writing, directing and scoring his films, each with a unique flair that deserves praise, and as far as his modernised Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers-with-bells-on goes, I say "Kudos!".
Review by shaneo632 from the Internet Movie Database.