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'The Puppet Masters' (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 24, 1994

It's taken Robert A. Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" 43 years to make it from small print to the big screen. Unfortunately, the grand master of sci-fantasy probably deserves a better telling of his story of earthly invasion by alien slugs who take humans over by penetrating their brains and spinal cords with tendrils, immediately gaining mind and memory control.

Both fitfully entertaining and on occasion sufficiently scary, the film is undermined by some things not uncommon to genre fare (budget limitations, script flaws, uneven acting). Mostly, though, the problem is the seeming echo of themes and devices, original and shocking in 1951, but now familiar through other films, including three versions of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Jack Finney's book was written three years after Heinlein's, and both were sci-fi satires on the dual dangers of communism and conformity during the McCarthy era. That subtlety was seemingly unimportant to Abel Ferrara (director of last year's "Body Snatchers") or Stuart Orme, a Brit making his American debut with "Puppet Masters." Actually, the film most often resembles television's "The X-Files," though it's more graphic.

Central to the plot are Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland), no-nonsense chief of the secret Office of Scientific Investigation; Sam Nivens (Eric Thal), his alienated son and an OSI agent to boot; and Mary Sefton (Julie Warner), a NASA exobiologist (she's into alien intelligence). Sent to the location of a possible UFO sighting in a small Iowa town, they find its citizens infested with parasites that are equal parts stingray, slug and anteater. These burrow into their hosts' backs and deprive them of humor and sexual feeling. The challenge, of course, is to identify, contain and eradicate them before they multiply and go forth to take over the world. That proves quite difficult, particularly since just about everybody gets taken over at some point, heroes included. Unlike the body-snatched, these victims can survive the puppet experience.

And unlike Heinlein's original story, which was set in 2002, the film is set in the present; it also borrows elements from such films as "Alien," "Invaders From Mars" and various versions of "Body Snatchers." That's probably fair since a lot of sci-fi films -- and fictions -- have taken inspiration from Heinlein's concepts.

Not to be confused with the "Puppet Master" series endemic to cable and video stores, "The Puppet Masters" occasionally lives up to its reputation, but the delay between story conception and celluloid conversion has clearly wilted its power and potential.

The Puppet Masters, at area theaters, is rated R for violence.

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