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'Communion' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 11, 1989

A film like "Communion" doesn't really deserve an actor like Christopher Walken. And director Phillippe Mora certainly doesn't know what to do with him. On the other hand, who does?

It's hard to know exactly what Walken is attempting in "Communion," but whatever it is, it's irresistible. This is a deeply eccentric, immensely watchable actor, one with a bafflingly elusive grasp of character and an unnerving, electrifying presence. Here he plays the New York novelist Whitley Strieber, who published an account of his alleged contact with extrahuman creatures that made the bestseller list in 1987 and is still collecting followers.

The story picks up in October of 1985, before Whitley's otherworldly visitations begin, and even then he seems a bit tightly wound. Because of the hats he wears and his habit of training a video camera on himself while at work, we have to wonder just what kind of writer he is. He's also fond of reading his work aloud, into the camera, and watching how it plays on the monitor by his side. All this paraphernalia gives Walken plenty to toy around with, but just why a writer would need all this stuff is a mystery that's never solved.

With Walken in the lead, the extraterrestrials seem only slightly more peculiar than the humans, even if the visitors are spidery, almond-eyed creatures (the "Close Encounters" model) or three-foot-tall tar babies in blue suits with black rubber masks for faces. There's no normalcy in this actor; every move is a surprise, sometimes a shock. Even the way he carries himself, the way he gestures and delivers his readings, is an expression of his own weird, highly personal magnetism.

Mora and Strieber (who adapted his own novel) make some real attempts to create a sense of day-to-day family life, but Whitley makes a mighty peculiar daddy-o -- he's so outrageously off-the-wall that it's hard to imagine how his son (Joel Carlson) could be anything other a nervous wreck. As Whitley's wife, Lindsay Crouse fluctuates between being an amicable playmate and a shrew. She doesn't get all the jazz about little blue men and encourages Whitley to submit to hypnosis by a slightly-too-chic psychologist (Frances Sternhagen). Naturally, this gets us nowhere, except into a couple of even more disorienting hallucination scenes, which suggest that the outer space visitors have been watching far too much TV.

The whole movie is clouded and obscure and pretty much inexplicable. On one level, it can be read as a writer's extreme attempt to unblock himself.

Or we could accept it at face value, as an encounter with spacemen.

Naaaah!

Communion is rated R

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