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The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: The Puppet Masters (film)

On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.

The Puppet Masters
Coincidentally, this movie has a lot of subtext about fathers and sons

It was 1994, and I went to the movies with my dad. Anyone who's kept up with this blog for a decent amount of time probably knows I get most of my love of classic science-fiction from my late father, who was able to instill it in me after largely failing to do so with my older brothers. He had a particular love of insidious alien invasion stories, with such classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Tingler, and Day of the Triffids high on his list of favorites. Therefore, when he found out they were making a movie based on Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, arguably the first such story, he was as excited as a little kid, especially after he found out it had Donald Sutherland in it, who just so happened to also be one of his favorite actors. When it came time to go see The Puppet Masters, nobody else was interested, so he and I went to the theater by ourselves and left happy.

So look, I'll try to be objective here, but I can't promise to give you an unbiased look at this movie. It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination--I don't think we even thought of it as anything but fun popcorn entertainment back in 1994--but it is one I will cherish forever, simply because of the memories attached to it. However, I have now seen it after having read Heinlein's novel, so I can compare and contrast without too much emotional baggage getting in the way.

As an adaptation, it's kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, it sticks very true to the basic plot outline, with events playing out in largely the same way, albeit in a compressed manner. The main writers, Ted Elliot and Terry Rosio, have an evident love for the source material and do their best to honor it, even keeping the unsatisfyingly weak climactic confrontation between Sam and his mind-controlled father. It does do away with the mandated public nudity angle, but it's not hard to see why. The fact that things happen on an accelerated time table makes this change palatable, as does the fact that an NC-17 rating would have doomed the film at the box office.

The Puppet Masters
Maybe it's just thirsty

On the other hand, the setting is changed to the modern day, which takes away much of the intangible feeling of the novel. The writers clashed with Disney executives on this front, leading to rewrites by Hollywood fixer David Goyer, which in turn lead to a watered-down take on the material that does away with flying cars, laser guns, Venusian colonies, and the like. It makes sense, given the film's tight budget and desire to appeal to mainstream audiences, but this single change makes it very hard for the movie to stand out as anything but a generic rehash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Also, for the marketing, the tag line for The Puppet Masters was "Trust No One"; can you possibly get more generic than that?)

Granted, this isn't nearly as uneven or unwatchable as the previous years' Body Snatchers, an adaptation best left forgotten, but The Puppet Masters falls victim to the unfortunate side effects that come from an earlier source material adapted after its successor. Despite coming first as a novel, The Puppet Masters, the film, feels derivative and unoriginal because it got adapted after Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers. (Also, weirdly, where most of the film adaptations of The Body Snatchers lean into political themes that are absent from the novel, The Puppet Masters adaptation removes the political subtext that is absolutely present in Heinlein's writing.) The two stories--The Body Snatchers and The Puppet Masters--aren't identical, of course, but they're similar enough that comparisons are hard to avoid, especially given the inclusion of Donald Sutherland, who also happens to be the star of 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Puppet Masters
When all else fails, get Donald Sutherland

Then again, Donald Sutherland is easily the best thing about this movie. He is perfectly cast as the Old Man (named Andrew in the film), and though I could imagine a couple of other actors pulling it off, I have a hard time thinking of any actor with the proper mix of gravitas, smirky charm, rough edges, willingness to ham when needed, and ability to go really cold really fast to properly play the character as well as Sutherland does. (Maybe Morgan Freeman.) The other notable actors in the film include the always awesome Keith David and a surprisingly subdued Will Patton, both of whom are given relatively small roles as the military figurehead and head scientist, respectively.

It's unfortunate, then, given these good ancillary performances, that the main characters are played by complete nobodies--Eric Thal and Julie Warner--neither of which can really handle being at the center of the action. Warner, despite being saddled with a pretty undignified third act turn into the obligatory damsel in distress, does better than Thal, who is ridiculously bland and has an unfortunate tick of opening his mouth in a very strange way that is far more distracting than you'd think. Both of these actors are known more for guest appearances on television than for their film work, and this film quite clearly demonstrates why.

The Puppet Masters
These two just aren't good enough to carry a movie

Alas, they are a symptom of a greater disease hampering this adaptation: the budget. To properly adapt The Puppet Masters, one would need a much bigger budget than whatever was given to director Stuart Orme. The exact figure hasn't been publically disclosed, but if I had to take a guess, I'd wager the film only cost about ten million to make, which is far, far too low to get it right. The budget shortfall is evident, not just in the two lead actors, but in other areas as well, like the stocky music, wonky editing, terrible green screens, and hohum action set-pieces. It's no wonder the film, despite everyone involved obviously trying their best to make it work, flopped at the box office and is hardly remembered at all today.

Ultimately, this movie is a bit of sci-fi fluff that genre fans can find enjoyment out of, if they keep their expectations in check. It isn't afraid to get a little schlocky, and that goes a long way to covering up its obvious shortcomings. The special, physical effects are actually pretty good--the slugs look great--though the visual effects are marred by CG shots that have aged very, very poorly. The story tries its best to stay true to Heinlein's novel, though no one who has read the book would call this a direct adaptation. Heinlein's political ideas are lost in translation, and the change of setting to the present day ruins much of what separates the novel from its successors. It's not, on the whole, a great film--nor is it a great representation of Heinlein's work--but I do love it nonetheless.

-e. magill 6/27/2019

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