Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Rare Lost Surprise Of Robert A Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters"

The Good: Surprisingly good acting, Better focus on character than usual science fiction, Generally good effects, Tone.
The Bad: '50s style plot, Moments of camp.
The Basics: A MUST for science fiction lovers, a solid film for anyone else and good luck finding this one!

I'll begin this review by telling you good luck. Good luck finding Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters on video. It is rather difficult to find on video and the DVD - when one is able to find it - is a bare-bones presentation of the film itself without any extras. The problem here is not how good the film is, because it is surprisingly good for a science fiction-horror flick, the problem is it was such a commercial flop that getting your hands on it now is like searching for the Holy Grail.

That said, Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters is a surprise and a pleasant one indeed. Despite its fast pace, it manages to pack quite a bit of character building in. The relationship between Donald Sutherland's curmudgeony scientist character and his son is played believably with enough detail to make their conflict realistic. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is the slow scene wherein the young man explains what it was like growing up with the stern scientist. In other words, the film makes a fair attempt to make this movie into something more than a creature feature and it has a lot to recommend it as more than that.

When satellite photos suggest that an alien presence has touched down in Iowa, Dr. Andrew Nivens is sent to investigate along with the exobiologist Mary and his estranged son, Sam. What Nivens discovers is that a small Iowa town has been infected with a parasite that attaches to humans and forces them to do their bidding. They are beginning to spread through Iowa and Nivens is eager to have the state cordoned off, against the wishes of local government. The mission to save the world takes a turn for the personal when Sam is infected with one of the alien parasites and seems bent on spreading the influence of the creatures far beyond Iowa. As Nivens works to find a way to free Sam from their control, the military and scientific communities work desperately to stop the spread of the alien plague and restore the victims to health!

There are elements of Hollywood here, there's a gorgeous exobiologist, Mary, played by Julie Warner, who takes a liking to the free-lancing son, Sam, and their romantic entanglement throughout the film adds a level of camp to the piece. Yes, it's romantic subplot #5, romance during an end-of-the-world crisis! It is somewhat hokey, yet it also works.

What isn't campy is the invading creatures. The look of the aliens has to be different and interesting because the main plot is that a small town in the midwest is invaded by extraterrestrial organisms. It's a done plot. This movie does it well and with a pretty fair amount of originality and fans of drama are likely to be surprised and horrified by some of the twists the film takes, even if they seem somewhat predictable to fans of science fiction. Reversals like when the army invades to discover legions of children waiting for them, are moments the film is unbearably creepy.

The creatures, however, are downright cool. The awful bluescreen shot in the helicopter near the film's end represents the sole crappy special effect. In fact, the work done on the creatures, which represent a huge amount of special effects work is masterful. These flying creepy crawlies are disgusting and look real! The basic idea of the creature is that they are a flying parasitic brain and they had to be mobile; they have a "feeler" which shoots out, latches onto things and then retracts to pull the body along. They look like little skates with nerve tissue on the bottom and they are creepy.

Okay, so invading parasites take over the midwest. We care because they're basically one large brain and their dominance of humanity basically represents enslaving the populace as powerless zombies. As well, they retain the memories of all they encounter, so when Sam goes up against them, anyone he encounters knows how his mind works and may anticipate his actions. That is a frightening possibility and Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters executes it well.

Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters sounds done but it's a surprisingly well executed film that uses a bit more character development than your average action film and it's a lot of fun. The acting in it is solid with Donald Sutherland effortlessly portraying a taciturn father who is brilliant in the field, but not so much when it comes to relating to his adult son. The supporting cast of Julie Warner and Eric Thal is strong and they are all believable in their parts.

On DVD, Robert A Heinlein's The Puppet Masters comes without any frills.

For other science fiction films, please check out my reviews of:
Dark City
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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