Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Puppet Masters (1994)

Warning: contains impolite thoughts about Robert A. Heinlein.

A UFO goes down over a small US town, and soon, the people there start to act a bit strangely, invite visitors into a fake UFO and are probably up to other shenanigans. Why, it’s as if they were controlled by alien parasites sitting on their backs!

An investigation by the USA’s scientific intelligence service under leadership of Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland) with his estranged son Sam (Eric Thal) and NASA xenobiologist Mary Sefton (Julie Warner) soon finds out that it is in fact alien invasion time. So many backs to ride on, so little time. Now, you’d think it would be rather easy to detect aliens slushing away on people’s backs, even before our heroes find out that infected humans have a heightened body temperature, but in this movie, the protagonists only like to check for this sort of thing at dramatically appropriate moments instead of, you know, regularly, so soon the whole of the US (which is of course the whole of the world for this sort of movie) is under threat.

Let’s start with the positive first: Stuart Orme’s The Puppet Masters is not a very close adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, so it spares us the weird-ass nudism as well as Heinlein’s insufferable, endless smartass bullshitting, the author being one of those people who have to demonstrate to everyone willing to listen (and also to those who aren’t) that they are an authority on frigging everything, particularly those things they don’t actually have a clue about. Personally, I always thought that Heinlein was to SF was Ayn Rand is to philosophy, popular in the US, not taken all that seriously by anyone outside of it.

The film would really rather be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or at least the lite, authority-trusting version of it (no unhappy or even ambiguous endings for this film). Considered from scene to scene, it’s not completely unsuccessful with this approach. There are a handful of effective scenes of paranoia, a smidgen of light body horror, and more than just an echo of Alien’s face hugger, and while Orme’s direction isn’t particularly exciting or inventive, it is perfectly competent.

Unfortunately, “competence” isn’t exactly what the film’s script spells to me. I’m not generally one to complain about or even just look for plot holes, but The Puppet Masters is just too sloppy and inconsistent to take seriously for me. The fact that our supposedly competent heroes seem always outgunned not because the aliens are so much more effective (they sure aren’t) but because humankind’s best hope are the sort of people unable to come up with a way to check each other for alien parasites on their backs, and who proceed to basically gift a whole army to the things in a particularly embarrassing sequence. Then there’s the film’s inconsistency towards the physical powers the parasites induce in their hosts: some get super powers and only go down after they have been shot repeatedly, others work on a classic goon power level and go down when someone looks at them wrong. It’s the same with the parasites – some seem to die with their hosts, other are sprightly as hell afterwards, and so on. Or talk about the psychological effects of getting separated from one’s parasite. What starts out as psychologically incredibly damaging in the film’s first acts turns into the sort of thing everybody is able to shrug off in a few minutes in the last.

And don’t for a second expect the film to think about the ethical implications all that shooting of infected our heroes do has, seeing as infected aren’t beyond help. But hey, this is a film that solves the alien problem with “hey, just infect everyone with encephalitis!”, so what do I expect?

It’s all a bit much (or rather too little) even for me to just shrug off in a film, so The Puppet Masters did not leave a very pleasing impression on me.

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