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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Masters' Strings Up Sci-Fi Fans

October 21, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You might be wondering what we need with another body snatchers movie when there's already been one official "Body Snatchers" remake released this year. But "Robert A. Heinlein's the Puppet Masters"--based on a 1951 story by guess-who that predates even Jack Finney's literary mother of all pods--is a kinder, gentler and more action-oriented sort of "B.S." It's perky paranoia.

Following a rumored alien infestation in a small Iowa town, a father-son team from a typical top-secret government organ--Donald Sutherland and Eric Thal--meet up with NASA exobiologist Julie Warner to go take a look-see.

There's a good joke early on, when Warner quickly determines the locals are no longer quite human by noticing that the menfolk don't try to look down her blouse. A shootout with the critter-controlled Iowans ensues--"It's the kid from the spaceship! Get him off the car!"--and these three high-tail it back to a state where the guys are more interested in drilling babes than drilling brains.

The army is sent in and, of course, legions of troops quickly fall to the shifty parasites, which attach themselves to human backs, send tentacles into the nervous system and instantly suck up the memory of their hosts. The alien advantage--and, in the inevitable twist, their downfall--is that they're 60% brain tissue.

This movie doesn't suffer the same problem of excess gray matter. In its favor, "Puppet Masters" has a strong sense of its own silliness and doesn't play around with superfluities like subtext. The movie isn't dumbing down science-fiction so much as being spiritually faithful to pre-Communism, old-school sci-fi--in which an invasion might not be such cause for political or spiritual Angst as for a team of brilliant scientists to exchange jocular banter or even smooches as they narrowly save the world via firearms and the best available medical research.

And so, after an agreeably hokey and halfway-fun first half, you keep waiting for the picture to take off into the goofy delirium it promises. That's about the mid-point where the unnecessarily long proceedings bog down in ill-edited shootouts and fisticuffs that take place largely in an underground "hive" set even Ed Wood might not have thought was great.

By this time, it's apparent that the best audience for "Puppet Masters" is an appreciative kid crowd (despite the R rating, which seems altogether too harsh for the relatively mild mayhem here), though boomers with inordinate fondness for Saturday matinees could find themselves fleetingly willing puppets of the nostalgia engendered in better moments.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence, sci-fi gore and brief language. Times guidelines: It includes much gunplay, some gruesome creature effects, and one pointed use of profanity--but still on the tame side of R.

'Robert A. Heinlein's the Puppet Masters'

Donald Sutherland: Andrew Nivens

Eric Thal: Sam Nivens

Julie Warner: Mary Sefton

Keith David: Holland

A Hollywood Pictures presentation. Director Stuart Orme. Producer Ralph Winter. Executive producer Michael Engelberg. Screenplay by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, David S. Goyer. Cinematographer Clive Tickner. Editor Daniel A. Lomino. Music Colin Towns. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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