I liked “The Puppet Masters” when I first saw it many moons ago, while still at the age where the word “impressionable” can reasonably be used. But time has ways of shedding light on a movie’s problems, and 10 years later, Stuart Orme’s film isn’t quite as good as I remembered. Which doesn’t mean it’s terrible, because it’s still quite a nifty little action film, if just because I think Eric Thal (who plays Government gunman Sam Nivens) makes an excellent action hero. Thal must have taken some lessons, because the way he whips out his gun, fires, and tosses his opponents about with almost no effort makes you think the man has taken extensive lessons in “How to whoop butt without really trying”. Either that, or he’s really that smooth in a tough spot.
The film itself is nothing extraordinary, and in fact it’s one of many movies (not to mention TV movies and mini-series) made in the ’90s that attempted to put their own spin (which invariably turned out to be like everyone else’s) on the old paranoia classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, a 1956 movie based on a novel by author Jack Finney. But a half decade before Finney’s tale of alien invasion, notable sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein’s “The Puppet Masters” embodied the pervading fear of Communism that was rampant in 1950s America. Unfortunately for Heinlein, because Finney’s “Body Snatchers” was first to be adapted into a film, and one that eventually became a classic of the genre, Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters” is all but forgotten. And judging by the relatively obscure nature of Stuart Orme’s “The Puppet Masters”, it would seem Heinlein, despite coming first a half century ago, will continue to take a back seat to Finney.
“Puppet Masters” opens well, with gunman Sam meeting up with Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland), his father and the head of a secretive CIA offshoot agency, and Doctor Mary Sefton (Julie Warner) at a private airport. The trio is in Iowa, where a UFO was reported to have crashed-landed last night, but has since been turned into a tourist attraction by a group of entrepreneurial and really creepy local kids.
As it turns out, a UFO really did crash last night, and the occupants are slimy slugs that literally piggyback rides on the back of their human host, thus controlling them like, as the title suggests, puppets. Discovering that the entire small Iowa town has been co-opted, Sam, Mary, and Andrew barely escapes back to their headquarters, where they must come up with a desperate plan to stop the alien spread before it’s too late. But as it turns out the aliens are clever buggers, and they’ve already gotten someone inside Nivens’ super secret organization — and it’s no other than Richard “The Guv’ment Killed JFK, Man!” Belzer. Hmm, I smell typecasting.
Whereas the original novel was an allegory for Red Scare paranoia so prevalent in America a half century ago, with the Cold War with the Russians looming behind every house, neighbor, and book store, the movie version of “The Puppet Masters” is strictly light, fluff entertainment. As mentioned, the film’s best moments usually involves Eric Thal doing his super agent thing, which he gets to do quite a bit. There is some lengthy attempt at romance between Thal’s Sam and Julia Warner’s Mary, but it’s all perfunctory and not all that interesting. The other reason to watch is the venerable Donald Sutherland, who was actually in a remake of “Body Snatchers” in the ’70s, making “Puppet Masters” his second stab at battling an alien infestation.
The film seems to have a moderate budget, which may account for the, well, moderately staged action scenes. There isn’t anything in the vein of, say, “Independence Day”, where whole cities are fried for sheer entertainment value. The action in “The Puppet Masters” is on a smaller scale, and it’s actually the attempts at large set pieces where the film fails noticeably. Veteran TV director Stuart Orme doesn’t seem to have gotten anything extraordinary out of the budget, and as a result the film seems more level grounded than your usual Alien Invasion movie.
Which isn’t to suggest that “The Puppet Masters” is any more “real” than your standard Alien Invasion movie. There’s nothing very gritty or logical about the film, including its insistence that the slug aliens (much like the worm aliens in the big budgeted “Dreamcatcher”) actually flew a UFO to Earth. Now maybe if the writers could convince me how a slug without arms or legs had flown that UFO, I might have been more keen to accept them as possible invaders. As such, there’s no explanation, which is just as well, as any type of exposition in Alien Invasion movies invariably comes out as little more than random scientific techno babble made up by writers who doesn’t know what the hell they’re writing about.
Interestingly, “The Puppet Masters” boasts a couple of well-known industry names in the credits. Writing partners Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio would go on to write “The Mask of Zorro”, “Shrek”, and the inexplicably successful and popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie (as well as its two upcoming sequels). The other famous name is David S. Goyer, who would go on to find tremendous success with the “Blade” franchise, not to mention his best movie to date, “Dark City”.
Of the cast, Eric Thal doesn’t seem to have made much of a career as a leading man post-“Puppet Masters”, which is a shame as he’s quite convincing as a swift and efficient man of action. I would have liked to see him play more spy roles, or at least roles that allowed him to flex his muscles. As well, Julie Warner hasn’t done anything of real note since this 1994 effort, and seems to have disappeared into TV hell. Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, has shown little problems finding A-list jobs. Which isn’t a surprise, as the man is supremely talented.
You could do worst than “The Puppet Masters” if you were looking for a good Alien Invasion movie, and really, only those with interest in the genre (such as myself) need bother in the first place. The film doesn’t have nearly the budget or the excessive set pieces of “Independence Day” or a lot of other sci-fi movies out there, and it certainly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I still contend that “The Puppet Masters” is decent entertainment for the undemanding viewer. In any case, it’s certainly better than Abel Ferrera’s stab at the same premise, which came out roughly the same year, along with a lot of other movies about invading alien slugs (or worms, as the case may be).
Stuart Orme (director) / Robert A. Heinlein (novel), Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, David S. Goyer (screenplay)
CAST: Donald Sutherland …. Andrew Nivens
Eric Thal …. Sam Nivens
Julie Warner …. Mary Sefton
Keith David …. Alex Holland
Will Patton …. Dr. Graves
Richard Belzer …. Jarvis