Screenplay : Whitley Strieber (based on his book)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1989
Stars : Christopher Walken (Whitley Strieber), Lindsay Crouse (Anne Strieber), Frances Sternhagen (Dr. Janet Duffy), Andreas Katsulas (Alex), Terri Hanauer (Sarah), Joel Carlson (Andrew Strieber), John Dennis Johnston (Fireman), Dee Dee Rescher (Mrs. Greenberg), Aileen Fitzpatrick (Mother), R.J. Miller (Father)
"'Communion' was written to bring into question the idea of alien abduction. It was intended to enrich speculation about this experience by placing it in historical perspective and--at the same time--acknowledging its power and the startling sense of physical reality that accompanies it." --Whitley Strieber, from an article in "Publisher's Weekly," October 2, 1987
The general reaction to most alien abduction stories is incredulity at best, mockery at worst. And why not? Most writing about alien abductions is on the base level of supermarket tabloids, with silly, attention-grabbing headlines about extraterrestrial impregnation and finding out one's spouse is actually from another planet. Beyond tabloid sensationalism, you have people like Rik Little, a man who hosted his own New York cable TV show called "The Church of Shooting Yourself" in which he constantly filmed his own life with a videocamera to assure himself that he was not being abducting by space aliens ("Space aliens force me to think I am out of my apartment when I am in fact in my apartment," he claimed).
However, on the other end of the spectrum is novelist Whitley Strieber, whose 1987 nonfiction book, "Communion," is a first-person narrative about his own encounter with nonhuman beings--visitors from another planet or another dimension. The book was an immediate sensation, selling millions copies and generating a great deal of buzz. Most of the media treated it kindly, with only the occasional attack (the one that comes to mind is vicious, 5,000-word pan in "The Nation" that accused the book of being a complete hoax written for the sole purpose of making money). Interestingly enough, when Strieber, who has now written several more books on the same topic, is called a "faker" or a "lunatic" or accused of perpetrating an elaborate hoax, it is usually from UFO enthusiasts, perhaps because they are bitter that he earns so much money from his endeavors (he got a $1-million advance for "Communion" alone).
It is apparent in every frame of the film version of "Communion" that Strieber went to great lengths to ensure that he had control over the finished product (because two of his earlier novels, "The Wolfen" and "The Hunger," had already been turned into movies, he was well-aware of how harshly Hollywood can treat source material). Strieber acted as co-producer, wrote the screenplay himself, and had his good friend, Philippe Mora, direct (Strieber and Mora even founded their own production company to make the film). The result is a film that stays close to the book and maintains, for the most part, an air of dignity and professionalism; you might even go so far as to say that it is rational and restrained.
Unfortunately, this is part of the film's problem. "Communion" suffers from a split personality. This should not come as too much of a surprise, considering that Strieber himself is something of a contradiction as an author, claiming at one point in "Communion" that Tarot card readings are valid, while later decrying that the major threat to modern science is superstition.
His screenplay for the film is intent on avoiding accusations of sensationalism and fakery, taking great pains to ensure that it will be read as a psychological drama about a family going through troubled times (a title near the beginning tells us that this will be "The true story of one American family"). Yet, at the same time, it knows it must deliver at least some vicarious thrills, so it stages a number of smoky, dimly lit sequences involving triangular-headed beings with flat black eyes sticking probes into Whitley's various orifices--visual realizations of the detailed sequences in his book. These scenes are so specific in their intensity and so lacking in any ambiguity about what is happening that the notion of Strieber suffering from anything other than actual alien abduction becomes absurd.
The filmmakers have repeatedly stressed that the film does not confirm the idea that Strieber was abducted by aliens from outer space. Yet, everything in the narrative, from the specifics of the abduction sequences to the repeated emphasis on other people sharing in Strieber's experiences--ensure that no other reading is left tenable. The idea that it could be something in Strieber's mind--perhaps a brain disease--is just a smokescreen to make you think the film is offering possibilities, rather than a specific interpretation. The idea that these beings are from another dimension rather than outer space is a possibility, but it is never raised in any serious terms.
However, in terms of maintaining interest, "Communion" does benefit from spending time with its characters. The narrative centers on Strieber (Christopher Walken) and how the resulting personality changes after his supposed encounter with nonhuman beings in late 1985 affected his wife, Anne (Lindsay Crouse), and their six-year-old son, Andrew (Joel Carlson). There are numerous domestic scenes in the film's opening passages that establish the various characters, most notably Strieber's somewhat eccentric approach to life (his writing habits include him videotaping himself while reading passages of his own writing) and Anne's contrasting down-to-earth perspective. They have a healthy relationship and a good outlook, which is why Strieber's sudden depression and confusion comes as such a shock.
The story takes a while to gain real momentum, and, at first, it merely hints at an otherworldly presence with brief, dream-like sequences and strange lights flooding through the windows of the Striebers' ranch house in upstate New York. Most of the detailed scenes with the visitors are in flashbacks, when Strieber is hypnotized by Dr. Janet Duffy (Frances Sternhagen), a sympathetic psychiatrist who has a dozen patients with similar stories.
The abduction sequences work because of Philippe's Mora's roving camera and his willingness to let the scenes unfold in a loose, somewhat improvisational manner. As Strieber, Christopher Walken is an intense presence, and some of his reactions to the visitors around him (such as laughing and attempting to dance with them) seem ludicrous at first, until you consider how ludicrous the situation is. After all, how can one possibly imagine how one might react in such an extreme circumstance? Mora wisely keeps the abduction sequences dark and filled with pulsing smoke; this serves the dual function of adding creepy atmosphere and also obscuring what are obviously second-rate special effects.
In a limited sense, "Communion" works. Its success is limited in that those who already believe in extraterrestrial encounters will likely be drawn to its restrained, realistic treatment of potentially sensational subject matter (like William Friedkin, who brought a realist approach to "The Exorcist," Mora started off as a documentary filmmaker). It treats seriously that which could be utterly laughable. However, at the same time, it isn't likely to convert any skeptics or even make them question their assumptions. The obviousness of the film's interpretation of its events as an extraterrestrial encounter removes any chance of truly deep, psychological ramifications.
So, the best advice that can be given about watching "Communion" is simply this: enjoy it, but don't take it too seriously.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: Audio commentary by director Philippe Mora and William J. Brines, publisher of "UFO Magazine"; outtakes; storyboards; still photos; two theatrical trailers; behind-the-scenes footage; excerpt from documentary "According to Occam's Razor" that shows purported footage of an alien implant removal
Distributor: Elite Entertainment
Video: The new anamorphic transfer on this DVD is quite good, although some of the early scenes are a bit soft, and film grain is evident from time to time. Colors are nicely saturated throughout, and blacks are rich and solid. Several of the sequences involve intense, blinding white lights that cut through the darkness and fill the frame, and the disc maintains a surprisingly good contrast between the light and the dark. There is some degree of disagreement, however, about the aspect ratio in which the film is presented. According to the web master of an unofficial Whitley Strieber web site (http://www.beyondcommunion.com), the film was originally projected in theaters in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which director Philippe Mora later claimed to be a mistake. The image on this DVD is soft-matted at 2.35:1, which gives the film a broader scope, but also eliminates some of the top and bottom of the frame that had been previously visible. To further confound the issue, in 1996, the film was released in two aspect ratios: a special edition laser disc in 2.35:1 and a collector's edition VHS tape in 1.85:1. According to the packaging for the collector's edition tape, the film's cinematographer supervised the 1.85:1 transfer, so it essentially comes down to a dispute of preference between the director and the cinematographer as to which aspect ratio is correct.
Audio: The newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is fantastic. The scenes where the visitors envelop the Streiber house with pools of light is accompanied by a vigorous, low rumble that encompasses the viewer. The surround channels are particularly active during these sequences and the actual abduction scenes, creating a creepy, life-like ambient environment. Eric Clapton's theme music during the opening credits also sounds excellent, with a perfectly pitched guitar that contrasts with the haunting human voices that fill most of the music.
Extras: This disc comes with a good set of supplements, although they are something of a grab bag in terms of quality. First up is the audio commentary by director Philippe Mora and William J. Brines, editor/publisher of "UFO Magazine." This commentary is consistently interesting, although it often has little to do with the film in question; they spend more of their time discussing UFO-related phenomena (especially the Roswell incident) than filmmaking. To be fair, though, this was Mora and Brines' intention, and they make that clear from the start of the commentary. The disc also includes outtakes, although most of them are actually dailies--rough footage that was edited down to create scenes in the movie. There is only one completed scene in the outtakes that was later excised from the film. The brief behind-the-scenes footage doesn't offer much to hold attention, although it does include a few shots of Whitley Striber and his family posing in alien T-shirts, a scene that is just a bit creepy. One of the most interesting supplements is a short excerpt from a documentary about alien abductions that Mora is currently working on called "According to Occam's Razor." The brief video footage included here shows what is purportedly a surgery to remove an alien implant from the arm of a man who claims to have been abducted by aliens. It sounds more exciting than it is, with the alien implant looking like not much more than a BB. Still, it did generate my interest enough that I am curious to see the entire documentary (which is probably why it was included in the first place).
©2000 James Kendrick