Thursday, August 5, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters

As an avid reader of science fiction in my youth, Robert A. Heinlein held a special place in my heart. The dean of American science fiction writers, the only man to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel four times, his work has fallen into disfavor in recent years, but if you can get past the fact that stories written in 1950 tend to reflect a 1950 mindset, his stories still rank among the best sci-fi has ever produced.

Although there is a long tradition of science fiction and horror intersecting, Heinlein wrote only one novel that could be classified as horror, The Puppet Masters, serialized in the long-defunct Galaxy magazine in 1951. This story of an alien invasion predates the similarly-themed The Body Snatchers, filmed as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1994, The Puppet Masters got its own time in the cinemas, presented as Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters to distinguish it from the low budget Puppet Master franchise.

The movie begins as a fairly faithful updated version of the novel. Government agents Sam (Eric Thal), Mary (Julie Warner), and The Old Man (Donald Sutherland) go to Iowa to investigate the reported landing of a flying saucer. By the time they get there, the locals have admitted it was a hoax, but something seems terribly off about them. It turns out the UFO landing was real, and the saucer was filled with parasitic slugs, which latch onto a victim from behind and then “ride” him, controlling his actions and accessing his thoughts and memories. After discovering it, the crew barely escapes with their lives (and a specimen) and begin the task of convincing the powers that be there is an alien invasion in progress, and coordinating the defense.

The movie works very well in the early phases, as the menace is discovered and then investigated, but starts to fall flat about halfway through, as the film strays further from the source material. Any emotional resonance is lost, and even when the characters are in danger, the viewer is fairly unaffected.

A lot of Heinlein’s elements don’t make it into the movie, and the absence of some of these proves fatal. Gone are the sociological ponderings that became increasingly prevalent in Heinlein’s work. (In the novel, which takes place over a longer time span, public nudity becomes common place, as citizens go bare to prove they aren’t carrying a slug.) Even worse, the battle against the aliens, presented as a world-wide war with demarcated battle lines and fifth columns, is now a local incident. If most of the aliens, and their central hive mind, are concentrated in Des Moines, Iowa, why not blow up Des Moines? Nothing against the citizens of that fine city, but if it’s them or the entire human race, the sacrifice should be made.

The acting is generally first rate, although there’s an annoying bit early on. When one of the team members is taken over by an alien, he immediately becomes too strange and distracted, which tips off what should be a dramatic “reveal” later on. The direction and cinematography are competent, and the budget was surprisingly large. Some of the special effects seem a bit dated by today’s standards, although I imagine they were top of the line at the time the movie was made.

Although ultimately this movie ranks as a squandered opportunity, (The claustrophobic, desperate conclusion of the novel is especially missed), it is still a cheesy fun popcorn movie. Enjoy it with your brain set on neutral. Perhaps someday the movie will get the adaptation it deserves.

For an interesting look at what goes on in the making of a film, and how it goes off the rails, I direct you to this essay by one of the screenwriters. It makes you appreciate the difficulty in making a good movie, and lament the missed chance here.

1 comment:

The Doctor said...

Wow, that screenwriter essay is a great read. I'm a big fan of middle and early period Heinlein, so thanks for bringing this to my attention!