Despite the computers and the infrared scanners that place it squarely in today's world, the movie version of the 1951 Robert A. Heinlein novel "The Puppet Masters" has a lot more to do with the '50s than the '90s.
In fact, what's amusing about the movie is the way in which, with only the slightest cosmetic once-over, it grimly transplants heavy-handed '50s ideas into our era. It's as if it were beamed forward from 1951 by some time machine, carrying the ominous lesson (from another '50s sci-fi classic): Watch the skies.
To begin with, under the handsome A-movie production there beats the heart of a schlocky B-movie, our old friend, the monster-attack movie. It even has the classic triumvirate at its center, a beautiful young woman scientist, a tough government agent and a wiser older scientist. But unlike "Them" or "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," where the young woman was the daughter of the professor, this time the agent is the son of the professor. We had to wait 40 years for this advance?
Briefly, some kind of celestial phenomenon impacts in southern Iowa. The Heartland! Imagine the perfidy! Somehow it plants gourd-like seed pods in the cake-rich Iowa soil that in turn produce mucas-slathered manta rays that in turn attach themselves to necks of the locals and in turn quickly turn them into smiley robots (like, it's Iowa, how could they tell?). But Our Government is up to the challenge and a crack team infiltrates the area -- an imperious Donald Sutherland, a peppy Julie Warner and a heroic Eric Thal. All these actors are too good by half for the movie, but watching talented people perform absurd acts is one of the secret delights of "The Puppet Masters." Anyway, the team figures out in a flash what's going on and alerts the government, and the war of the worlds is on.
Clearly, the transcendentally romantic and optimistic Spielberg canon on intergalactic contact is inoperative here; the metaphorical underpinnings of this film are derived purely from Cold War paranoia at its most monolithic. We have been invaded and the response is unambiguous: Kill the beast. That's essentially what the movie is about.
Implicit in this mindset (and long since vanished from the culture) is heartfelt trust in and enthusiastic endorsement of the powers of government, and the movie looks with relief on the sight of American soldiers prowling down the streets of Des Moines to regain control. Of course, these days -- after Vietnam, Watergate, Waco and so forth -- it's a little more difficult to tumble to the idea that the government will save us all.
That intellectual underpinning is the more interesting part of "The Puppet Masters." In the actual story, it turns out that the first half -- as agent Thal is inhabited by the creature and scientist Warner manages to "cure" him as daddy Sutherland looks on unemotionally -- is much more provocative than the second half, which ultimately takes the form of a World War II "desperate mission into enemy territory" movie, with Thal and Keith David parachuting into Occupied Des Moines to free Warner, who herself now wears a manta-ray necklace.
All in all, "The Puppet Masters" carries a far more menacing warning than it thinks: it warns, "Watch the theaters!"
"The Puppet Masters"
Starring Donald Sutherland, Eric Thal and Julie Warner
Directed by Stuart Orme
Released by Hollywood Pictures