Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters

1994, Movie, R, 109 mins

Review

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Based on a Robert Heinlein yarn that was first published in Galaxy in 1951, THE PUPPET MASTERS is an anomaly: a 1950s-style space opera filmed on a lavish 90s budget. Despite accomplished special effects and a coolly intelligent script, this paranoid thriller never follows through on its eerie promise.

The OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence) is assigned to investigate a meteorite fall near the bucolic town of Ambrose, Iowa. Headed by father-son alienbusters Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland) and Sam Nivens (Eric Thal), the OSI team invites the cooperation of NASA scientist Mary Sefton (Julie Warner). Observing strange behavior amongst the townspeople culminating in an unfriendly reception at the local TV station that sounded the initial alarm, the OSI team uncovers an interplanetary conspiracy; parasitical alien organisms are inhabiting the bodies of earthlings and controlling their minds. Investigative team agent Jarvis (Richard Belzer) proves to have fallen prey to the "puppet masters," whose modus operandi involves attaching themselves to victims' backs and shooting tendrils into their brains. The aliens' ultimate intention is to seize power by brain-snatching the US President (Tom Mason) on a local visit. Andrew thwarts the extraterrestrial plot, but he's unable to save Sam from a body-and-soul takeover. By the time he figures out how to release his son from alien mind-control, the creatures have started infiltrating military forces that have surrounded and sealed off the town; meanwhile, exo-biologist Mary has acquired an alien controller.

Andrew discovers that the puppet masters are controlled by a central intelligence and organizes a commando attack on the extra-terrestrial mother hive where infected earthlings are recharged. Hoping to rid Mary of her cosmic intruder and save the world, Sam volunteers to accompany agent Holland (Keith David) to alien HQ. Sam penetrates the alien base, removes Mary's parasite, and learns that encephalitis can destroy the creatures at no risk to mankind. Holland, possessed by a puppet master, dies trying to prevent Sam's escape from the bomb-blasted hive, along with Mary and a child stricken with encephalitis. When Andrew later succumbs to alien-infestation, Sam battles his father in a helicopter until the alien organism withdraws and is annihilated in the copter blades.

To fans of American International's quirky invasion-earth flicks, THE PUPPET MASTERS represents a genre vindication, splashing a poverty-row sci-fi trope of the 1950s with up-market Technicolor and expensive effects. But this contemporary thriller approaches its terrifying subject matter in such a stodgy, straightforward manner that it sometimes feels like a colorized version of an old drive-in feature. The rich thematic potential of this paranoid story line, so memorably explored in the 1956 and 1978 versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, is largely abandoned in favor of hackneyed father-son discord and the anti-climactic raid on the alien nest. At times, however--particularly in its initial build-up--THE PUPPET MASTERS may have aficionados jumping out of their seats. The sneak attack on Sam and his subsequent deprogramming by shock treatment, for example, are remarkably creepy.

In 1958, a loose version of Heinlein's tale was filmed as THE BRAIN EATERS, and some of the same plot elements surfaced earlier in IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956). Despite their laughable special effects, those movies demonstrated the value of compression. The state-of-the-art THE PUPPET MASTERS offers all the thrills money can buy but takes too long and runs out of steam well before the end. (Graphic violence, nudity, profanity.) leave a comment

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Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
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