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Puppet Masters, The

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Film.

Film (1994). Hollywood Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company), Buena Vista Pictures. Directed by Stuart Orme. Produced by Ralph Winters. Written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and David S Goyer, based on The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990) by Robert A Heinlein. Cast includes Richard Belzer, Donald Sutherland, Eric Thal and Julie Warner. 109 minutes. Colour.

Agents for the Office of Scientific Investigation, an "above top secret" branch of the CIA, arrive in the small town Ambrose, Iowa, to investigate a reported UFO crash. OSI director Andrew Nivens (Sutherland) and Dr Mary Sefton (Warner), an exobiologist "on loan" from NASA along with Agent Jarvis (Belzer) meet Nivens's son Sam (Thal) there and find that the site has within a day become a tourist attraction. They quickly discover that the report was valid and that the Spaceship carried tentacled Alien "slugs" which have already taken over everyone in the small town as the first phase of Invasion. They achieve this by attaching themselves to people's backs (as in the Heinlein novel) and controlling them via tendrils sent deep into the host's brain. After a narrow escape, the team returns to headquarters, where it emerges that Jarvis has been taken over; removing his parasite (see Parasitism and Symbiosis) nearly kills him and he subsequently commits Suicide. A counter-invasion Invention is introduced, a heat-sensing device which identifies humans under alien control. The aliens prove to be a Hive Mind community controlled by a queen of sorts. Considerable action follows, with Sam eventually sneaking into the alien hive to destroy the queen-creature without which the others cannot live. Inexplicably though very much in accordance with the grammar of Hollywood, one final creature has survived and takes over Andrew himself, leading to a father-son battle aboard a helicopter. Sam removes the parasite; though many people have died after such forcible separation, Andrew survives without apparent serious trauma.

The novel's pervading subtext of Cold War Paranoia, with aliens a metaphor for communist infiltration, is largely absent; the resulting film is a relatively simplistic action-adventure set in the 1990s present rather than the future. Discarding Heinlein's revealed back-story leaves some loose ends: no origin is given for the alien parasites, and their previous hosts (without which essentially limbless beings could hardly build and pilot spacecraft) are not considered. The Puppet Masters was unsuccessful at the box office, perhaps also because by the time the novel was officially filmed its plot had been imitated or echoed by several other Cinema and Television productions. In particular, The Brain Eaters (1959) provoked Heinlein to sue for plagiarism, settling out of court for $5000; closely similar mind-controlling parasites also feature in the Star Trek (1966-1969) episode "Operation – Annihilate!" (13 April 1967). Others have noted that the resonances of Cold War paranoia that strengthened Heinlein's story had been more effectively evoked in film by the differently plotted Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which had already occupied – as it were – the relevant ecological niche in US popular culture. [GSt/DRL]


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