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Film review: Communion

Published: Sunday, Dec. 3 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

Whether or not you believe Whitley Strieber's claims about his personal encounters with and abduction by alien beings, the film version of his best-selling book "Communion" makes for provocative drama.

No matter how much many of us may doubt the plausibility of such events, spurred on by hysterical headlines in the tabloids at grocery store checkstands, most of us have a curiosity about such claims.

How else do you explain Strieber's book selling 2 million copies?

Ultimately, however, the film is a disappointment, not because Strieber's story lacks interest, but because director Philippe Mora has apparently seen too many other movies. There are echoes of everything from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to "Poltergeist" to "The Shining" (even the stuffed-animal-mistaken-for-an-alien moment from "E.T.") and the look is so familiar it detracts from the central conflict.

Christopher Walken, one of the movies' more eccentric actors, plays the equally eccentric Strieber, a novelist suffering writer's block as the film opens. He's working on a piece of fiction he's dissatisfied with and is having nightmares and what he assumes are hallucinations.

To the audience, however, it is obvious he's having "close encounters."

Soon his young son is also seeing bright lights, little blue men and insect-type creatures with big eyes. But his wife Anne (Lindsay Crouse) only remembers the lights, and she is reluctant to admit even that initially.

Eventually they visit psychiatrist Janet Duffy (Frances Sternhagen), who is treating several other patients with vividly similar experiences. They are hypnotized, and we see their experiences more specifically. In particular the aliens, for some unexplained reason, perform a hideous rectal examination on Walken.

One of the film's weaknesses is that too much is unexplained, including an odd hint that perhaps Duffy may also be having visitations.

But most of the film seems good-natured and well-intentioned, and the central performances are solid enough to make you care about the Striebers as intelligent victims in a unique predicament: Confronting the truth of it must be dealt with because the stress of this unknown and terrifying phenomenon is breaking up their marriage, but to confess what they've seen feels foolish.

It would be easy to make fun of a film like this because it takes itself so seriously that it becomes ridiculously self-important, and it is played in such a straight-faced manner that some scenes seem oddly satirical.

Walken and Crouse, however, are very good at conveying their characters' dilemma, and some of their scenes together have a realistic, improvisational feel to them.

Strieber, who wrote the screenplay and co-produced "Communion," explores some fascinating territory, though it is often a bit vague. But it is Mora's direction that makes too much of it redundant (an aspect not helped by the film being too long).

"Communion" is rated R for language, some male nudity and the frightening intensity of some scenes.

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