I love the works of Robert A. Heinlein, known all over the world as "the Dean of Science Fiction." Hell, my love for Heinlein is probably the only thing I have in common with my father, aside from my hairline, that is. While its true that Heinlein's writing became increasingly controversial and... well... weird... in his later years, his earlier works from around 1947 - 1966 are some of the finest works in speculative fiction, in my opinion. You'll remember yesterday I reviewed the 1978 film adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on a Jack Finney novel many consider to be derivative of Heinlein's work. Just how derivative? Well, since I haven't read Finney's novel, I cannot make an informed judgment. I can, however, compare one film adaptation to another, so today we're going to take a look at 1994's The Puppet Masters, based upon the 1951 Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same name.
The film opens in a rural farm community in southeast Iowa where a strange light is seen landing in the woods outside town. Three young boys rush to investigate, and when a man arrives from town to investigate as well, they attack him, knocking him unconscious. The next day, Sam, who works for an off-shoot of the CIA, arrives in Iowa to meet Jarvis, Mary (a NASA scientist, and his father Andrew (played by Invasion of the Body Snatchers star Donald Sutherland). The team investigates a phony flying saucer built by the three boys, and Mary notices everyone around the fake UFO is acting strangely. When the team meets with the director of a local news station, the man attacks them, and Sam is forced to kill the man in self defense. They witness a strange, slug-like creature emerging from beneath the man's back, and Sam traps it in a briefcase. The team escapes from the station and returns to their base to examine the creature.
Back at the lab, Sam notices Jarvis acting suspicious, and realizes that the man is under control of one of the alien parasites. After a lengthy pursuit through the building, the alien jumps from host to host until it takes control of Sam. Riding Sam and controlling him like a puppet, the alien retrieves a cache of dormant slugs from Jarvis' apartment and attempts to take control of the President of the United States, but the plan is foiled and Sam is taken into custody. With the knowledge gained during Sam's time under alien control, Andrew and his agency coordinate with the Iowa National Guard to contain the invasion, but the slugs overpower them. The Puppet Masters now have an army, and if they aren't stopped soon, within a matter of weeks, they'll seize control of the entire world.
Let me start off by saying I love the fact that the invasion begins in what is obviously northern Van Buren County (based on the map shown in the movie), which is where I'm from. It's nice to see VBC getting repped in the movies, even if they did use a fictional town with a comically large population.
Donald Sutherland is great as always, but he really excels in his role as the Heinlein archetype of the wise, grumpy old man we see so often. I have to wonder if his casting was some tongue-in-cheek nod to his role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The alien slugs are well-made and convincing, not to mention sufficiently creepy. The alien hive in Des Moines, however... not so much. While overall I'm more forgiving of this movie than mty father, that's one thing we can agree on. The hive just looks hokey, and its only made worse by the fact that the parking garage its set up in looks like a bomb went off. I mean, why? For a species that is roughly 60% brain, they can't be too smart if they decide to set up their fragile colony hive in a crumbling structure. But really, it's a minor gripe. The rest of the film is pretty solid.
The Puppet Masters is a good movie, and I think critics have been unfair to it. I'm not sure I'd rank it above Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though. The movie does omit a lot of material from the book, particularly the expanded edition published in 1990. It's been long enough that I think the story is due for and worthy of a remake. In order to do it justice, however, I'd like to see it done as a series much in the style of Netflix's Altered Carbon. While many of Heinlein's works are considered problematic by today's standards, I think many of his early and middle works would make great big- and small-screen properties. If you like suspenseful paranoia stories in the same vein as Body Snatchers or John Carpenter's The Thing, give this one a watch, or even better, give the novel a read. I highly recommend both.