Fans of sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein may turn out for the bigscreen spinning of his 1951 tale “The Puppet Masters,” but only the most undiscriminating monster-pic buff will come away satisfied. A thoroughly undistinguished if inoffensive telling of Heinlein’s classic tale of parasitic outer-space creatures who threaten to control our planet, “Puppet Masters” should creep into the marketplace and leave the box office virtually undisturbed.
Set in the same bucolic Iowa locations that worked so effectively in “Field of Dreams,” “Masters” makes an ironic counterpoint to that pic’s placid spiritualism. But instead of magical ballplayers imparting a beatific calm to all who encounter them, here a particularly nasty brand of interplanetary gremlins turn humans into lethal zombies willing to kill in order to do their masters’ bidding.
Like the 1956 Don Siegel classic thriller “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”– and by extension the two “Body Snatchers” remakes — and the 1953 space spooker “Invaders from Mars,” “Masters” plays out a familiar scenario pitting heroic scientists against forces determined to plunder our planet while plucking out and chucking away our personalities.
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In what’s almost a reprise of his role in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 “Body Snatchers,” Donald Sutherland plays Andrew Nivens, an earnest CIA-type foe to the ornery critters. He’s aided by his son Sam (Eric Thal), a handsome martial arts expert who just happens to work for Dad and the Company.
Sam’s love interest is Mary (Julie Warner), a perky exobiologist brought in to uncover some Achilles gill to the slimy little bloodsuckers, whose preferred method of dominance is to attach themselves to humans’ backs. Assisting her is quirky scientist Graves (Will Patton), who’s odd enough to provide the pic with tension over his state of mind. Is he a pod guy, or isn’t he? Only his extraterrestrial knows for sure.
By the pic’s third act, when Sam has to go into the gooky hive where the space invaders replenish their human hosts with a kind of plasma battery recharge, clunky dramatics and low-rent art direction have caused pic to lapse into a slumber more numbing than anything that might descend from the skies. Though Heinlein’s novel preceded most of the pix that have made the alien invasion and human somnolence scenario so overly familiar, the filmmakers have proceeded as if it were still the early ’50s and all of this were revelatory, not timeworn.
What directors like Siegel made horrifyingly effective is here delivered straight-faced and winds up pedestrian at the hands of Brit helmer Stuart Orme. Along with the laughable creature effects, Orme ignores the fact that the material doesn’t offer the common citizens’ perspective of the invasion, which Siegel mined so effectively. The audience is forced to stay with the less compelling super-heroic characters as they fight the invasion inside their tech labs and Pentagon berths.
Worst of all, Orme misses the chance to explore the difference between alien-induced stupors and the everyday Midwest existence. What a difference it could have made if someone had said, “Is this Hell?” and someone answered, “No, it’s Iowa.”