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The Puppet Masters

***
1997

‘…offers more paranoid fun that this film’s reputation suggests…’

The wholesome Disney + might seem like an odd place to do it, but I’ve been catching up on the cinematic adaptations of the work of Robert A Heinlein. The satirical thrust of 1997’s Starship Troopers is always a pleasure, but a few years earlier, there was a decent attempt to film his 1951 novel The Puppet Masters. Dispensing with the futuristic dystopian setting of the book, it’s a rather muddled film, but does have enough striking moments to make it worth exhuming for genre fans.

In an souped-up X Files-type scenario, a freshly laundered Donald Sutherland plays Andre Nivens, the head of a secret CIA body entrusted to stand between us and potential alien invasions. Together with his son Sam (Erik Thal), Nivens travels to Iowa to investigate reports of a flying saucer, bringing along NASA expert Mary Sefton (Julie Warner) for additional insight. They find the area overrun with nasty parasitical symbiotes that swiftly attach themselves to the spinal cords of their human victims, taking over the local cops, military and spreading across the community like a virus. Sam is an early victim, but his father manages to remove the creature; it’s soon discovered that the invasion is not of many creatures, but one singular organism with super-fast reproductive abilities and the ability to swamp humankind within days if not stopped fast.

Perks include Keith David as a tough soldier, Yaphet Kotto as a general, Will Patton as a helpful science-guy and Law and Order’s Richard Belzer as a possessed flunky. That’s all helpful to a scenario that resembles another groovy alien-possession B-movie The Hidden, but even if director Stuart Orme doesn’t have the budget for spectacle, there’s a few truly disturbing moments. When Nivens calls in military support, there’s a brief image of the army confronted by an group of alien-possessed children, and the off-screen carnage works all the better for suggestion.

Early work from writers who would go on to create both Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight on script duties, The Puppet Master offers more paranoid fun that this film’s reputation suggests; the idea of the enemy as a single organism does eventually land, and the final attack on the alien nest is well enough done, even if the helicopter finale is a blue-screen disaster. With a few fresh frissons about contagion that look more relevant in a Covid-fearing world, The Puppet Masters pulls just enough strings to be worth a watch.

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  1. OK, parasitic superorganisms invading Iowa I can accept, but the CIA greenlighting a father/son investigation duo? Such neat nepotism would likely raise a couple of bureaucratic eyebrows. Immersion ruined.

    • This comment made me laugh! You can’t immerse yourself in a film this shallow; I guess the CIA’s standards are slipping in the face of such a hostile invasion. Rural Iowa is the prize, so any tactic will do…

    • Yup, this isn’t in the same rank, but there are moments when the big ideas shine through. Really looking forward to seeing Troopers soon, satire is the way to go when adapting this author…

  2. I am surprised they chose this story but with a limited budget, that makes sense.
    I don’t know if I would watch this or not. The book was only middling and most middling books don’t get turned into fantastic movies.
    I do remember that book was all about how the ingenuity of humanity was what made us top dog in the universe (or was going to) and it seems that sense of superiority didn’t make it into this film.

    • I wouldn’t rush, it’s a bit garbled, but there are nuggets of big ideas here that make it a cut above the norm. But that idea of human superiority is barely there…in the film, it seems obvious that humanity could easily spot who was controlled by aliens by mandating everyone to walk about shirtless, is that what happens in the book?

    • Agreed, there’s lots of life in this concept, and the story could be told in a much more modern way today…

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