Film review: Puppet Masters, The

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 1994 12:00 a.m. MDT

Not having read the source material for "The Puppet Masters," I can't speak to the film's faithfulness to Robert A. Heinlein's material. But the movie certainly resembles a lot of other sci-fi thrillers — "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Hidden," "Alien," "Invaders From Mars," "The War of the Worlds" . . . to name just a few.

Undiscriminating fans of the genre will probably not be terribly disappointed, but this is certainly familiar territory.

The film begins like an expanded (and bigger-budget) episode of "The X-Files" as a team of scientists from a secret government agency race to the site of a reported UFO landing in a small Iowa town.

There, ornery team leader Donald Sutherland, his second-in-command (who also happens to be his son) Eric Thal and scientist Julie Warner investigate and manage to capture an alien creature that is none too friendly.

These parasites from outer space attach themselves to human bodies (or hosts, if you will), take complete control of their brains by tapping into their spinal cords and then organize themselves to take over the world.

They multiply rapidly and are, to say the least, difficult to control. Early on, soldiers in an Army unit become hosts for the aliens before you can say Rod Serling.

The film's best moments come when the creatures take over the lead characters and their companions fight to bring them back alive. One stirring sequence has Thal, with the parasite on his back, in a sterile bubble where Sutherland alternately speaks to both his son and the alien.

Though there are feeble efforts to toss some intelligence into the mix, first-feature director Stuart Orme and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Disney's animated "Aladdin") and David S. Goyer (Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Death Warrant") are really more interested in action, and they do keep the narrative moving. What the film really lacks, however, is a sense of humor. Everything is so deadpan serious that an element of camp occasionally creeps in.

Sutherland is, as usual, quite a commanding presence, and Keith David has some effective moments as the primary military man on the scene. And Warner and Thal are pretty good in the romantic leads. But the talented Yaphet Kotto and comedian-actor Richard Belzer (who are co-stars in TV's "Homicide: Life on the Streets") are woefully underused.

"The Puppet Masters" is OK for die-hard sci-fi fans, so long as you don't expect too much.

The film is rated R for considerable mayhem and a fairly large body count, along with a few profanities and a nude scene (Thal in a shower).

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