The Puppet Masters

Director: Stuart Orme
Donald Sutherland, Eric Thal, Julie Warner

It's interesting to compare humans with animals in a number of aspects. While you may think that in many aspects humans would have nothing in common with animals, a closer look will reveal that the behavior of animals can often be similar to what many people go through. That includes working with others. Certainly, humans work with other humans, and there are many species of animals where one animals will work with one or more animal of the same species. But there are some species of animals that work with other species. I am talking about what scientists refer to as symbiotic relationships. There are a lot more that happen in nature that you might think. I can remember from my childhood one of the first such relationships I learned. My father told me that large animals like elephants have symbiotic relationships with small birds. The birds land on the elephants because the elephants more often than not have irritating insects living on them. The birds hunt down these insects dwelling on the elephant's skin and eat them. So the elephants get rid of the irritating insects, and the birds get an easy meal. Since learning about that particular symbiotic relationship, I have over the years learned about more, some that are more complex. For example, while you might think that zebras and ostriches would each stick to their own kind, in actual fact in the wild the two species often mix together. Why? Well, each animal has specific abilities to warn them about predators like lions. The ostrich has very good vision (and the advantage of height), so it can see danger from far away. However, it has a poor sense of smell and hearing. So it is the ostrich's advantage to stick with zebras, since while zebras have poor vision, they do have a great sense of hearing and smell. So as you can see, both species have found it good to stick together.

There are other examples I could list of two species finding it a benefit to work together, such as the plover bird and the crocodile. But there are also some relationships in the animal kingdom where things are definitely one-sided. I'm not talking about animals that hunt others in order to eat them. What I am talking about can be seen in the following example, the relationship of the tarantula hawk wasp with the tarantula spider. The female tarantula hawk wasp will hunt the tarantula spider in order to sting it, a sting that paralyzes the spider. Once the spider is paralyzed, the wasp will drag the spider to some safe spot, and then lay an egg on the spider. Once the egg hatches and the wasp larva hatches, the larva burrows its way into the spider and feeds off it until it matures into an adult wasp and flies away. Needless to say, this ultimately kills the spider. It's examples of one-sided relationships in the animal kingdom that makes me feel lucky that I am a human. Even if I got, say, a tapeworm, I could go to a doctor to get it removed. But sometimes I wonder what might happen if I or some other human were to encounter life that originated from some other planet. Could we be on the unlucky side of a one-sided relationship? After a little thought, I would say that in real life there probably wouldn't be too much risk. Evolution on our planet would have had to have been very different from evolution that happened on another planet. And knowing that, it stands to reason that alien species would have been conditioned to seek out species that came out of the same basic environment.

So when I watch a movie like Alien, where it had a scene where a hatching alien egg spewed out an alien spider that somehow instantly knew upon sensing a human that it should attach itself to the human's face... well, I think that would be very unlikely to happen in real life. On the other The Puppet Mastershand, there's no 100% way to determine what evolution on an alien planet could produce, from the species' ability to the way the species thinks. Maybe alien worlds could produce a creature that could exploit lowly humans. This idea has certainly been popular with many writers of science fiction over the decades. One of the earliest - if not the first - was thought of by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in his story The Puppet Masters. It was very influential, with many other books (and movies) ripping it off over the next few decades. So it's kind of odd that the official movie adaptation of it - also titled The Puppet Masters - took so long to get made. It didn't do much at the box office, and was quickly forgotten. Since imitations are usually inferior to the original, I wondered if this official adaptation would beat the many imitators I had seen over the years. In the movie, a mysterious American security agency quickly learns that what appears to have been a flying saucer has landed in the town of Ambrose, Iowa. The head of the security agency, Andrew Nivens (Sutherland, Dan Candy's Law), decides that not only will he personally investigate, he will bring several agents with him. The agents include an exobiologist named Mary (Warner, Family Law), and Nivens' son Sam (Thal, The Gun In Betty Lou's Handbag). Upon getting to Iowa, they soon discover that the claim was a hoax... apparently. The three can't help but notice that some of the locals are acting strangely. Eventually, the agents discover the truth: Aliens have indeed arrived, and they are not friendly. The aliens are relatively small, but if they manage to get onto the backs of humans, they insert tentacles into the humans' nervous system and then are able to control their hosts' words and actions. And the aliens' control over humans is slowly spreading - can they be stopped in time?

Way back when I reviewed the horror movie Tentacles, I mentioned that in a horror movie such as that, just as much care was needed with the portrayal of the human characters as with the horror menace hunting those humans. As it happens, a science fiction movie like The Puppet Masters also needs care with both of those things. Maybe more, since it's expected to be more cerebral. Because I started my analysis of Tentacles with the humans, I'll switch things around with this movie and start with looking at the aliens. When it comes to the look of the aliens, the movie is pretty sound. We get some pretty good looks at them throughout the movie, and they not only look appropriately slimey and creepy, they look alien - unlike any life form on Earth. However, when it comes to exploring the mind of this alien life form, the filmmakers make their first stumble. You would think that by attaching themselves to humans and using the humans as hosts, they would be able to express themselves and eventually explain their motives and philosophies. But surprisingly, this never really happens. There's one scene in the movie where the humans have captured an alien attached to a human, and attempt to interrogate the alien via the human. The alien (through the human) vaguely mentions something about the aliens wanting "peace" and "new hosts", but never gets farther than that. In the end, the aliens act just like aliens in many other science fiction movies, lacking real personality and just commit hostile acts towards humans. Making matters worse are some unanswered questions about these aliens. For example, the humans eventually uncover that the aliens have no sensory organs. In other words, the aliens can't, among other things, hear or see. With this in mind, it isn't very clear as to how the aliens can find human hosts to attach themselves to.

There's also the question as to how these aliens managed to get to Earth in the first place. Did they control hosts taken from another planet? This is also not made clear. Anyway, talking more about how these aliens come across poorly would be redundant, so I'll move on to how the human characters in The Puppet Masters come across. Sadly, they are also a washout, though not because they are thin and lacking personality. They have personality, but unfortunately it's one of some real stupidity at times. When Nivens and his team first enter the small town of Ambrose under the guise of being tourists, they are all wearing fancy suits. The fake U.F.O. that they subsequently see looks so cheap and small that it doesn't make sense that several hundred people would pay money to take a look at its interior. Later on in the movie, when they discover that the aliens plant and attach themselves on the backs of humans, they do realize immediately that everybody should take off their coats and shirts so they can show each other they don't have aliens controlling them. But believe it or not, this logical and effective safeguard is almost totally forgotten about for the remaining running time of the movie! Further stupidities also include when the town of Ambrose is sealed off but one entrance to the town is guarded by just two police officers. The sometimes stupid actions by the humans are bad enough, but also what hurts these humans is that they are sorely lacking personality. For example, it is established early on that the relationship between Nivens and his son is somewhat strained. But we never really get a good explanation as to why the father and son have for a long time had a tough time getting along. As well, the relationship doesn't really seem to make any progress as the story goes along, making the final scene between the two characters ring false.

I will say one thing good about the human characters in The Puppet Masters. As head agent Nivens, actor Donald Sutherland does give a pretty good performance. He has the challenging task of making his character somewhat cold and by the book, but at the same time sympathetic. Despite his icy behavior, I always got a sense that his character was the right man to head the investigation, knowing instantly what to do many times. However, I suspect that this good performance was brewed by Sutherland without any help from director Stuart Orme, since Orme apparently didn't seem able to punch up any of the other material in the movie. To be fair, the budget of this movie, while not downright cheap, does seem to have been limited; there are often a minimum of props and other production niceties, and there are some special effects that even for the time look somewhat tacky for a major studio movie. It wasn't a surprise when my research uncovered that Orme has worked primarily in television, since there are a lot of close-up shots and the lack of a "big" and "wide" feel, even in the action sequences. But the biggest problem with Orme's direction is that there is no feeling of passion anywhere in the movie. You would think that a slowly spreading alien invasion would build a feeling of urgency, a feeling of a big threat, some kind of great feeling. But that's not the case. There is more often than not an almost casual feeling, with the so-called big moments playing out with low energy. This sedate feeling may also come from the fact that the movie runs way too long at 109 minutes; some tightening may have put in a little spark. But as it is, The Puppet Masters is a tired exercise. While they say that copies never do as well as the original, this is one case when many of those aforementioned rip-offs prove to be an exception.

(Posted March 10, 2021)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Blu-Ray)
Check for availability on Amazon (Download)
Check Amazon for availability of Robert A. Heinlein's book

See also: Galaxy Of Terror, Journey To The Seventh Planet, Lifeform