At face value, The Puppet Masters had a lot going for it. For starters, its source material was a well-regarded, influential novel. Donald Sutherland headlining your movie is never a bad thing. And its premise, while familiar, touched on themes that translate across time. Too bad none of these made The Puppet Masters a better movie. Critics hated it; audiences ignored it. It’s the kind of movie that happened, but you like don’t remember it. In other words, The Puppet Masters pretty much defines the state of horror and sci-fi in the early to mid-1990s.
When a flying saucer supposedly lands in the American midwest, a secret branch of the CIA arrives to investigate. Though the UFO initially looks like a hoax, Agent Same Nivens and his colleagues quickly discover an alien invasion of mind-controlling parasites. With each passing day, the aliens take over larger segments of the town and soon the military itself. As the slug-like aliens spread their control, Nivens and his colleagues must find a weakness to save Earth from complete enslavement.
The Puppet Masters is Tonally Inconsistent, Often Unintentionally Funny Sci-Fi Thriller
Out of the gates, The Puppet Masters shows early promise. Keep in mind, Robert Heinlein’s novel predates Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers by a few years. So if The Puppet Masters’ premise feel derivative, it’s only that its source material served as the inspiration for paranoia-fueled 50s sci-fi drama. When The Puppet Masters taps into this theme early on, it’s somewhat effective. Sadly, director Stuart Orme abandons Heinlein’s Cold War subtext almost 15 minutes into the movie. There’s no attempt to adapt it to contemporary times. Instead, Orme settles for a generic action movie approach to the material.
…The Puppet Masters often veers into the unintentionally funny.
Ditching the movie’s deeper themes wouldn’t be a problem if if offered something entertaining in place of it. Too bad The Puppet Masters is a case study in mediocrity across the board. Neither the action scenes nor suspense scenes hit their marks. More often than not, The Puppet Masters comes across as disposable and inconsequential. Even by mid-1990s standards, the special effects are unremarkable at best. To its credit, The Puppet Masters is never boring or incompetent. And to be fair, some of the effects simply reflect the limitations of the era. Nevertheless, there’s little here that stands out. You’ll be hard-pressed to remember any one scene. In addition, The Puppet Masters often veers into the unintentionally funny.
Strong Cast Can’t Overcome The Puppet Masters’ Limitations
If you’re a bit of a cinephile, you’ll recognize a lot of faces in The Puppet Masters. Somehow this sci-fi misstep assembled an impressive group of respectable character actors. In addition to Donald Sutherland, Yaphtet Kotto (Alien), Will Patton (Halloween 2018), Andrew Robinson (Hellraiser), Julie Warner (Doc Hollywood), and Keith David (The Thing) all make appearances. Poor Richard Belzer barely has any dialogue; he mostly looks confused about what he’s doing in the movie. Not surprisingly, Donald Sutherland is probably the best thing about the movie, even if he’s basically playing himself. This isn’t Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but Sutherland looks like he’s sleepwalking through the movie like a ‘pod person’.
Not surprisingly, Donald Sutherland is probably the best thin about the movie, even if he’s basically playing himself.
Between the two leads in the movie, Julie Warner acquits herself quite well. A grand total of three screenwriters – including David Goyer – worked on this movie. But the screenplay ultimately regulates Warner to the love interest role for Eric Thal. On one hand, Thal does well playing an emotionless character controlled by a parasitic alien host. Any time he’s supposed to mimic real human emotions, however, Thal falls flat. As far as heroic protagonists go, Thal is serviceable if not entirely forgettable. In this regard, his performance is on par with the rest of the movie.
The Puppet Masters Not Likely To Invade Audience Interest Any Time Soon
The Puppet Masters is schlock that doesn’t know it’s schlock. Despite its respected source material and venerable lead Donald Sutherland, it’s dull, predictable, and often unintentionally funny. That three screenwriters took their hand at adapting the novel into what feels like an unaired X-Files episode is pretty telling. Perhaps if the writers had stuck to its creepy sci-fi premise instead of opting for diluted action scenes we’d have a different movie. Arguably, the best thing one can say about the movie is that it’s inoffensive.