*. Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters has been described as the original SF story of aliens taking over human bodies, but the novel itself was a long time coming to the big screen. Instead we got movies with similar themes made in the 50s like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A film version of The Puppet Masters was in the works at the end of the ’50s but the release of The Brain Eaters apparently jinxed it, so we had to wait another thirty-five years for this adaptation to arrive.
*. Was it worth the wait? Well, even though it’s largely forgotten today I think this is a darn good flick and a solid, indeed better than solid, adaptation of the novel, mostly faithful but updated in necessary ways that make it both more contemporary and cinematic.
*. Of course, when I say “contemporary” I mean by 1994 standards. There’s a wonderful scene here where one of the military guys holds up a 3 ½ inch floppy disk and tells the war room that “this disk contains every emergency contingency we’ve drawn up dealing with this kind of crisis since 1959.” Well, at least it’s nice to know they did have contingency plans for things like this.
*. I know I’ve said it before many times, but it’s so nice to go back to a time of in-camera creature effects. And I think they came up aces with the aliens here. They remind me a bit of the flying pancakes in one of the original Star Trek episodes (“Operation — Annihilate!”), in that they’re basically rays not slugs, with a whip-like tail they use for zipping around. This makes them a lot more threatening than the creeping terrors in the book or their cognates in The Brain Eaters, who can only crawl around on the floor after being transported in glass jars by their human hosts. They’re also given a bit of an Alien vibe as they come forth from their eggs ready to attach themselves to a host right away. Which made me think, again, of just how influential Alien was, in so many ways. Its fingerprints are everywhere.
*. I want to get back to the script. It’s credited to Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and David Goyer. Elliott and Rossio went on to write films like Aladdin, Shrek, and I believe all or most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so they’re professional hands when it comes to entertainment. They were also fans of Heinlein’s novel and wanted to stick as close to it as possible. The studio was less in love with the novel and wanted something a little more generic. This led to a lot of rewrites, in a process that went on for years.
*. For example, it’s interesting that the head of the studio didn’t like the idea of the aliens arriving by spaceship and instead suggested “spores.” When told this was just ripping off Invasion of the Body Snatchers he then went with having them come back hitching a ride on the Space Shuttle. Which they didn’t go with (they had a spaceship), but which is the delivery vehicle used in The Invasion. No idea ever goes unused in Hollywood, no matter how weak. The “B version” of the script for this movie was actually set on a military base as well, but then Body Snatchers came out and that part had to be changed. You see, people do at least try to be different.
*. One curious divergence from the novel is in the eschewing of Heinlein’s heavy political preaching about the evils of communism. I say this is curious because ever since Don Siegel’s 1956 film the Body Snatchers movies have always invited discussion of their metaphorical meaning, with all kinds of different interpretations as to what the pod people represent in our own time. There’s none of that here. The aliens are just aliens. They don’t mean anything. If there’s a political message to this movie then I missed it completely.
*. Otherwise, the changes the writers made mostly struck me as improvements. Of course, there was no way the nudity of Operation Bare Back and Sun Tan was going to work on screen. However sensible, it just would have just looked ridiculous. It made sense that Sam’s love interest is a scientist and not another agent because the plot didn’t need another agent but it did need someone to explain stuff to us along the way. As for the ending, well, it was a mess in Heinlein too. What they have here isn’t good, but it isn’t any worse, and is at least more cinematic.
*. There are other nice additions too, like the way the host chimps can communicate with the humans by way of typing on a computer. The aliens in this movie have actual personalities, and they’re mean little bastards. They like to mess with people.
*. So the alien that was smart enough to lower its body temperature so as to avoid being discovered wasn’t smart enough to realize that its host walked with a cane and so couldn’t go striding around nimbly without one? Hm.
*. Not a huge budget, and I’m afraid it shows at times. I like the fight in the helicopter at the end, but there’s some shaky blue screen (or green screen) going on there. The mother ship in the basement of the Des Moines City Hall, however, registers as a real disappointment, as it was to Rossio when he visited the set and argued that it wasn’t a spaceship but only “a slime-covered parking garage.” There are some things that you need money to build, and clearly they didn’t have it.
*. Donald Sutherland anchors things as the Old Man. He was quite reliable in roles like this at the time, and I got a kick out of him telling his son “Oh Sam, give it up,” in their fight at the end. Yaphet Kotto is also here, though he just seems to stick his face in the door. Richard Belzer is a wonderful presence, without any dialogue that I can remember. There’s a tradition of roles like that in conspiracy thrillers.
*. The leads — Eric Thal as Sam and Julie Warner as Mary — aren’t household names but she’s attractive and smart and he has a magnificent mane of hair and can take his shirt, and indeed all the rest of his clothes off and not look ridiculous. I was going to praise him for that wide, gaping thing he does with his mouth when ridden by an alien but then I noticed that he does the same thing at other points in the movie when he isn’t possessed. So maybe it’s just something Thal does to show intensity.
*. Director Stuart Orme wasn’t well known at the time, mainly having directed a lot of Genesis/Phil Collins videos. But I think he does well enough, especially considering the genre he was working in and the aforementioned budget constraints. This is a movie that so wants to be an alien-invasion blockbuster but it’s set in Des Moines.
*. It flatlined at the box office, though I remember going to see it when it came out so it got my money. I’ve heard it’s gone on to be recognized as a “good bad movie” but I don’t think that’s right. I’d call it a good little movie that’s only undercut by its aspirations to be something bigger.