R. The "R" stands for both "Restricted Audiences" and "WeiRd movie."
I always hate when someone claims, "Man that director must have been on drugs." It seems so flippant. It minimizes the amount of creativity that someone must have had to make a concept that hasn't been told before. Unfortunately, I genuinely think that John Carpenter may have been on something for this movie because between the bizarre and heady content, the structure of this movie is just baffling.
John Carpenter was crushing the '80s. The man knew how to make entertaining horror movies. Honest-to-Pete, I could simply watch John Carpenter's '80s canon for the entirety of October and consider myself a happy man. The movies are genuinely terrifying and, not wholly unlike Hitchcock, he knew how to play up dramatic tension. Between Halloween and The Thing, he has made perhaps two of my top five scary movies. They Live, in some ways, is his swan song to his great period. The odd part is that the movie is not great, but it is definitely compelling.
To explain this plot, I might come across as a bit of a mad man. The premise surrounds that creatures, which are implied to be aliens but never confirmed as such, exist all around us. They have made the human race dull and submissive through the use of subliminal messaging and have placed millions of sleeper agents disguised as humans in the world all around us. *So far, I'm doing a better job of explaining the movie than Carpenter does* It takes a pair of magic (?) sunglasses to see the truth of the world around us. After a drifter finds these glasses, he starts murdering every single alien (?) around him and trying to take down these guys with the help of human sleeper cells around the world.
This movie was Mr. Henson's baby. Mr. C, Mr. Henson, and I watched it with his recommendation. I'm glad I've seen it. This movie exists in a very specific classification of film that is a hard target to hit. It is crazy enough to be openly and encouragingly mocked, but watchable enough to get through it and come out the other end a good time. There is also something wildly unique about this movie that I can't compare to any other movie I have ever seen. Carpenter is full-on satirizing society through his thinly veiled allegory. This is a movie with purpose and intent. Carpenter, I can simply imagine, had an idea about what was wrong with society and how he wanted to change it. He invested all of his time into making spectacular mat paintings of the subliminal world. Then he got bored and added a ton of punching, guns, and staredowns.
And that's where this movie falls apart. I actually saw a clip from this movie years ago when the Internet meme came out. You may have seen "The Longest Fight Scene Ever". That scene comes from They Live. The protagonist, played by wrestler (yup) Rowdy Roddy Piper just going by Roddy Piper in this one, gets into a Family Guy style fight with Keith David over putting on a pair of sunglasses. I am somewhat convinced that Carpenter was trying to pad out his runtime or giving Roddy Piper wrestling fans a hint of gratuitous violence that they paid their admission to see. But the fight scene is really representative of everything bananas about this movie. Keith David is fighting Piper over the fact that he refuses to try on sunglasses. The entire movie is cramped with moments of "why is that character acting completely nuts?" moments. Piper goes from being a very sedate drifter to a quip spouting murder machine any time the movie gets a little slow. For the They Live apologists (whom I know are reading), I understand that there is a throwaway line about the sunglasses changing behavior, but no one else who tries on the glasses becomes Bruce Campbell's fever dream. It's just really weird.
There is so much here, but I'm ashamed that I have to go into spoiler territory. Anything I say could be instantly inferred by watching this movie. The structure is wacky. The allegory is anything but subtle. But at the end of the day, it's a good time to watch John Carpenter slowly go insane.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.