How does the film stack up to the book?
In the late 1970s to early ’80s, author Whitley Strieber was coming into prominence with two novels, “Wolfen” and “The Hunger” bestselling and making him a sprouting household name alongside Stephen King; however it was this “true account” of a horrific alien encounter that became his most-recognized work, ruining his reputation and cementing his legacy.
Published in 1987, this book chronicles the abduction of Strieber by alien beings and their experimentations upon him. Oh boy, how to describe the plot of this story. It’s like listening to someone spend an hour vividly explaining some nightmares he had, and then reasoning for another hour what each nightmare means and then spending the third hour explaining how they’re all connected.
The alien encounter entails Strieber being visited by 3.5-foot-tall alien creatures whose faces are obscured by hoods and/or wide-brimmed hats they wear. The “visitors” as he later calls them, carry him from his bedroom to a dirty and dingy room where he is experimented on in a large theater-like room by stalky, pale creatures wearing overalls that smell like cinnamon and cardboard. A silver needle is produced from a glossy black box and inserted into his head as well as, uh, (cough) “other effects” (let’s just say these aliens have dirty minds.)
Later he is returned home only to be visited again by a creature who shows him terrifying visions of the world exploding when Strieber tries to resist his psychic powers. When Strieber asks the visitors why he is undergoing this, the creatures reply it is because he is “the chosen one”. Strieber sees a hypnotist about this where he learns he has been receiving alien visions since he was 12, and obviously will continue since 5 (yes, 5) more books of alien encounters come after this. Oh. Boy.
The title is derived from Strieber’s takeaway of the whole affair. The aliens want more than just knowledge and understanding of us, they want communion with us and our existence. Despite becoming a bestseller, nobody took Strieber seriously anymore and his work ever since has failed to bring him the recognition (or notoriety) of this one.
Released in 1989, the film changes the viewpoint from Strieber’s point-of-view completely to focus on Strieber (Christopher Walken) and his wife’s (Lindsay Crouse) family-life becoming strained when repressed memories of Strieber’s past abduction begin to resurface. The filmmakers were more than a little skeptical of Strieber’s work and it shows with the inference of his character’s mental state being less than stable.
This film feels more like slice-of-life fare than Science-Fiction for at least half of its run-time, featuring Walken (Yes, I’m referring to the actor, since Strieber disowned this film over its representation of him) dancing and wailing inexplicably, jump-scaring his family, wearing glasses upside down while teasing his wife and writing a novel about wolves who work in advertising selling junk food and beer? In the words of Will Smith in “Men in Black”, ‘Was this before or after the alien took him?’
The film is visually surrealistic. Some characters’ faces are shown in bizarre close-ups, including one lady explaining a Halloween scavenger hunt in brash “Roseanne Barr” style. That shot was more frightening than the alien puppetry shown later. There is one moment where Walken dances with the alien creatures and realizingly shrugs as if he knows the scene is ridiculous. The ending even frames Walken and his wife discussing his encounter while in a peculiar art exhibit, their bodies being framed in the wild art designs as if part of the display.
Only Christopher Walken’s charisma carries this film, and his relationship with his wife is the highlight as they both fight to accept these challenges. The film’s climax features Walken facing a doppelganger of himself in a Christmas home replica while opening the face of a visitor only to find another, more savage one underneath, becoming both enthralled and enraged upon realizing the aliens will never reveal their true forms. This film was a trip.
I had an alien encounter myself this morning. I looked in the mirror and discovered a horrifying creature staring back at me with wild, unruly hair sticking up in all directions. After I got over my shock, I smoothed my hair and realized I was still looking at a horrifying creature. Then I had my morning coffee and saw myself.