As a society, we seem to have a love/hate relationship with puppets. While we enjoy films featuring puppets as the main characters, like in Pinocchio (1940) and The Muppet Movie (1979), we also fear them in movies like Child’s Play (1988) and Goosebumps (2015). Aside from the aforementioned Muppets, very few films actually use puppetry exclusively for their characters. The one exception to this was the Thunderbirds in their movie, Thunderbirds Are Go (1966), and its modern parody, Team America: World Police (2004). Even if these films prominently feature puppets, they don’t necessarily get into the details of puppetry itself. The act of controlling a puppet can be quite the challenging talent to acquire, but pulling the strings of a marionette isn’t the only way to engage in puppetry. This week’s two films highlight some different puppetry scenarios.
Being John Malkovich
Length: 112 minutes / 1.86 hours
There have been some films focused humans controlling humanoid robots. From the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) to its live-action remake in 2017, the idea of extending a person’s life through the human mind controlling a robotic body via mental puppetry isn’t new. Robocop (1987) and Chappie (2015) both emphasize the idea that humans can use machines to live their life when their bodies are no longer able to. The concept is rarely reversed, though. It is disquieting to think that a robot could control a human in the same way we control them. As humans, we already possess the skills needed to make puppets of our fellow humans. Through coercion, blackmail, and other forms of manipulation, we can control others to do our bidding. Only one film explores the ability for a human to control another human from the inside: Being John Malkovich (1999).
Famed actor, John Malkovich (himself), decided to make a rather drastic career change and become a world-renowned puppeteer. Unfortunately, this was not actually Malkovich’s decision, as Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) was controlling his body at the time. Craig was a down-on-his-luck puppeteer who happened to find a portal into the body of John Malkovich by chance. Initially, the portal only allowed for 15 minutes inside Malkovich to experience the life he lives. Using his skills as a puppeteer, Craig found that not only was he able to control Malkovich, but he was able to stay inside the portal for as long as he wanted. However, the portal is not meant for him and the organization that plans to use the portal to prolong their immortality proceed to enact a plan to get Craig to vanquish himself from the portal, allowing them to take his place permanently.
Length: 131 minutes / 2.18 hours
It is interesting to note that puppetry, while usually relegated to humanoid objects smaller than their puppeteers, can be used to control objects much larger than the one controlling them. Even the one-for-one puppetry scale referenced in the previous section pales in comparison to the giant robots known as “mecha.” A staple of anime and manga, mecha are usually large humanoid robots piloted by a human. There have been some notable entries in this sub-genre, including Gurren Lagann, Star Driver, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. The hallmark of these series has usually been either battles between mecha or (more commonly) battles against giant monsters. When Pacific Rim (2013) came out, I became excited about potentially seeing these mecha anime adapted into live-action films. For right now, I’ll just have to settle with its soon-to-be-released sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018).
Giant monsters called Kaiju began emerging from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and wreaking havoc on the nearby landmasses. To combat this threat, a multinational alliance started building gigantic robots called Jaegers. These Jaegers were too big to for a single human to pilot them, so the concept of “drifting” was created to share the mental load between two or more pilots. When the frequency of the Kaiju attacks left the Jaegers helpless to defend the world, the world leaders scrapped the project for building a coastal wall. When this wall also failed, the commander of the Jaegers hatches one final plan to close the portal between our world and the world of the Kaiju. Using the last few working Jaegers, the mission to detonate a nuclear device in the portal commences just as the largest Kaiju ever emerges from the rift.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 peculiar puppets