The Puppet Masters

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Our rating: two lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Boy, are we glad that Robert Heinlein wasn't alive to see this Hollywood adaptation of his science-fiction novella. The book was about the application of "good old American know-how" and straight thinking to a tough problem. The movie is about the application of Hollywood gimmicks and goofiness to a story which is tough to film.

Here's a quiz: If aliens have landed, and they control the thoughts and actions of people while riding on the backs of those people, what's the best way to tell who's possessed and who's not?

A. Get everybody naked from the waist up
B. Check their body temperature and hope that possessed people run fevers
C. Play leapfrog
D. Try to have sex with them and then figure it out

If you answered A, then you're smarter than the film-makers, because they tossed out the common sense answer that Heinlein provided and tried a couple of the alternatives we mentioned above. The aliens have landed, and they DO possess people by riding on their backs. And for some reason, the producers of The Puppet Masters thought it would be a bad idea to show some skin. Frankly, that goes against every rule of Hollywood we've ever seen. More people would have gone to see this loser if there had been some nudity.

If the scenario of The Puppet Masters sounds familiar, it's because are more movies based on the "possession" premise than there are Trancers films. Come to think of it, Trancers is based on this premise.

In any case, the usual order of the day should be paranoia. Who's a good guy, and who's a bad guy who looks just like a good guy? Unfortunately, The Puppet Masters abandons all such concerns in the first half hour. After that point, it becomes a 'kill the bad aliens' movie.

The Puppet Masters is the story of a secret government organization that exists to fight alien invasions and other weird happenings. When a UFO landing is reported in Iowa, they send a group consisting of Sam Nivens (Eric Thal), an exobiologist named Mary Sefton (Julie Warner), and Sam's father, also the head of the secret organization, played by venerable genre veteran Donald Sutherland. They find, instead, a rather obviously fake saucer. In an amazing violation of Occam's Razor, they decide that this means a real alien saucer landed, and begin investigating. Well, actually, that's not the only reason they start investigating. Julie notices that the local men aren't checking her out, an immediate cause for suspicion. It never occurs to her that maybe these hayseeds are more interested in livestock, if you get our meaning.

They decide they have a real invasion on their hands when the general manager of the local TV station tries to kill them, and they find a disgusting slug on his back. Again, we find this explainable in earthly terms: It was a network executive. In any case, they capture the slug.

After determining that the entire town has been taken over, the agents retreat back to their secret headquarters, which seems to be a rather laid-back kind of place for a secret headquarters. They begin trying to determine what weaknesses the captured slug has. And of course, it turns out that one of the agents that came back from Iowa has a slug on his back.

The movie follows the outline of Heinlein's novel, but differs in most details. The largest difference is that in the novel, Heinlein has his characters walk around naked for most of the book, because that's the only way to verify that they don't have a slug on them. In the movie, they avoid this by having people possesed by a slug run a fever, which means that the good guys can use hand held scanners (a la Aliens) to identify the bad guys.

The most disappointing thing about this movie is that it sort of becomes a action film after a while. Sam infiltrates the alien hive to bring back information, and finds a boy being held prisoner by the aliens who is apparently immune to possession. Gone is any pretense of a psychological thriller, or a "fighting against all odds" sort of sci-fi plot. The Puppet Masters degrades into a mere chase film, with completely predictable results and a rather dismal "you thought it was over but it wasn't" bit tacked on to the end.

Thal and Warner appear to be doing their best to swim upstream against the miserable script, but all to no avail. It's as if the writers and directors of the film conspire against and prey upon the actors, much as the aliens prey upon humans. Using Sutherland as their point-man, they drag our heroes and all hope of an interesting story down into the mire of mediocrity.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 1/6/97

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