Friday, June 10, 2016

President Snow Returns to Fight Even More Aliens, or Thoughts on The Puppet Masters

The Puppet Masters (1994), from a novel by author and national treasure Robert A. Heinlein, is thematically similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and was written around the same time, (1951 vs 1954, when Jack Finney’s original novel was published).  Both novels feature an alien invasion based on mind control, Cold War politics and the perils of blind conformity.
Donald Sutherland is back, this time playing the head of a shadowy government agency, the Office of Scientific Intelligence.  The irony is he’s actually one of the good guys and not trying to cover up anything; it was the early 90’s and we still trusted the government to some extent.
The X-Files had been introduced a year earlier, but this movie has an old-school classic Star Trek vibe.  The parasitic alien manta ray stinger thingys are reminiscent of the Alien face huggers but the way they attach to your back is basically the plot of Operation: Annihilate! from Star Trek Season 1.  Once they dig into your brain they turn you into a puppet, get it?
The conspiracy reveals itself fast because it’s pretty easy to determine who’s under alien control as they are stronger, faster and they have those creepy manta ray things glued to their backs.  The special effects are refreshingly analog with actual prosthetics animated by stop motion. 
In addition to Donald Sutherland, The Puppet Masters featured Keith David from The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988), professional cynic Richard Belzer, Yaphet Kotto from Alien (1979) and Live and Let Die (1973), and Andrew Robinson, Garak from Deep Space 9, The Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry (1971, his screen debut) and Larry Cotton in Hellraiser (1987) as an unlucky Secret Service agent.

Like Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein’s works enjoy a cult-level fandom and benefit from multiple readings; this almost guarantees box office disappointment.  Characters are merged and streamlined, plots are cherry-picked, and the subsequent versions rarely live up to reader expectations.  The Puppet Masters is a far better adaptation than say, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) but then there are less coed showers, so everything’s a trade-off.