Director John Carpenter has been known for many unique films in cinema history. Mainly his forte has been in the horror genre, but he has spilled over into other types of stories that remain just as memorable. Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), The Fog (1980) and Halloween (1978) especially, were the ones he is the most famous for. Even Starman (1984), which was the most deviant of his projects had a heartfelt story. However, if there were something that a lot of his projects had in common, it would be the idea of alien beings inhabiting the human body. It's not in everyone of his movies, but there are a bunch that push the idea of what were to happen if there was life beyond Earth and if they happen to look like us. Would they be threatening like the alien from The Thing (1982)? Or would they be innocent and genuine like Starman (1984). This question is also explored here, but with a different kind of lens. What if aliens ran our lives? At least on an everyday life kind of level.
That's more or less what Carpenter examines here. Adapted from a short story originally written by Ray Nelson, the story is about if humans discovered that their lives were being driven by an alien life force and not they themselves. How do they realize this? With the help of sunglasses that actually see right through the impostor human. The person to have the gumption to bring this to light is Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter. Initially, he was looking to find work to keep his life going. Instead he changes careers to vigilante when he finds out the earth has been subjected to these phony people. Convincing Frank (Keith David), a newly met acquaintance that he's not seeing things, the two set out to stop the invasion. Along the way he also meets Holly (Meg Foster), a broadcaster who reveals to him that all the subliminal messages these aliens put out are through a main signal distributor. For an overall story, it is decent for its setup. But there are certain qualities that are repeated from prior movies.
Aliens looking like humans but nobody can tell they aren't humans? Sounds very much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Although that is not a film Carpenter is directly related to, his film The Thing (1982) has used those key elements before. Here is no different in that respect. What is done in the script that hasn't been seen in other Carpenter films was the use of political undercurrents in an unbiased manner. This is displayed when Nada compares the world around him with and without the special sunglasses. A poster will say "visit Hawaii", when really it means "marry and reproduce". Other messages like "watch TV" or "don't think independently" are signs of conformity. These are things corrupt people want to see in the everyday citizen, because the less informed the better. It's a clever spin and instead of the corrupt people in real life causing the issue, it's aliens that look like real people. The other problem this film suffers from is the pacing. Sometimes scenes drag on longer than they should.
Character wise Roddy Piper is an entertaining main lead for this film. Widely known for his WWF days, Roddy Piper demonstrates in this flick he can be a convincing actor given the right script. It is interesting though that Carpenter cast him so not to overuse Kurt Russell. However Piper doesn't look that different from Russell, being that he has blond/brown hair, a mullet and plays a tough guy spewing one liners. Keith David as Frank is another great actor. David is known for playing very grounded down to earth characters and he too has some lines that are comical that he exchanges with Piper. Meg Foster is another nice addition to the cast. She of course is cast as one of those complex characters that is tough to determine a motive on. Sadly there's no man villain to really talk about but the aliens that have the human like appearance are the enemy. Although they are not really scary looking, their design is freaky and is more grotesque than anything else.
The rest of the visuals are adequate too. Sadly for those looking for gore won't get that in this movie. It's surprising since Carpenter is known for his gruesome spectacles like The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). The practical effects are still noteworthy though. Gary B. Kibbe was credited as cinematographer. Having experience in other camera related positions in movies like Halloween II (1981) and Prince of Darkness (1987), Kibbe keeps the camera focused and clear on the shot needed to be shown. He would later be the cinematographer for In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and RoboCop 3 (1993). Lastly, the music composed by Carpenter and Alan Howarth was probably one of the largest highlights to this piece. Seeing that Howarth is consistent in synthesizer instruments, the score to this film also utilizes these components. What's unique about is that the sound comes across like a smooth jazz western and it works really well since it fits Nada's personality. An underrated film score indeed.
While it may drag in some spots, the gore / horror isn't there and there are elements borrowed from other familiar films, the overall experience is still fun to watch. It could have used improvements in those areas but it works okay even with that. The main cast is likable, the script has engaging undertones and the film score is relaxing in its sound.