I’m doing a mini-tour of 90s sci-fi horror, and now it’s the turn of 1994’s The Puppet Masters. It’s based on Robert A Heinlein’s 1951 novel (he also wrote Starship Troopers, which was satirised in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation).
The Puppet Masters is a straightforward bugs arrive on Earth and take over peoples’ minds story. It’s a typically 1950s sci-fi B-movie kind of plot. The presentation is slick enough and the narrative is mostly coherent, but the characters lack emotional depth. Donald Southerland’s character, ‘the old man’, plays like a Dad to his two key team members, his son Sam and fellow agent Mary.
The problem is that the script doesn’t allow any of the characters enough room to be interesting or to develop in any way. ‘The old man’ gets in the way of Sam and Mary having what could have been a classic buddy movie relationship. And there’s no conflict between Sam and his father. Sam might have been more interesting as the young upstart, doing things in a new way, but there’s none of that. From a story perspective, the whole Dad-in-charge thing feels silly and uncomfortably paternalistic.
The television series, the X-Files first aired the previous year, in 1993. The Puppet Masters feels quite X-Files-ish, but Sam and Mary lack the fun chemistry of Dana and Fox. Where the X-Files is stuffed full of mystery, there’s very little of it in The Puppet Masters. The alien parasite is shown early on (killing the menace of fighting an unknown entity) plus, it looks like a Dover Sole, which is to say, unthreatening and ridiculous.
The Puppet Masters is one of many 90s science fiction alien invasion films like Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), and while they were thrilling, scary, and comic The Puppet Masters never manages to be any of these. It feels like a straight to DVD film, which reflects its 26% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the problems originate from the by-the-numbers script that shoehorns too much in without allowing the characters time to develop, low budget action sequences, very little change in pace, and not much in the way of tonal atmosphere.
The finale is underwhelming. There’s a predictable reveal, and a convenient way to defeat the alien parasite, which makes the ending feel like it hasn’t been earned.