In 1975 five guys were driving through the desolate forests of Arizona and one of them seems to have been killed or kidnapped by a giant pulsing orange UFO. The others take off and return in a hurry to town and don't report the incident. When they finally do, everyone else in the little community of Snowflake thinks that they killed Travis Walton (D. B. Sweeney) and left his body up there somewhere. Even the state's criminal investigator (James Garner) is skeptical.
One or two thorough police searches of the area turn up nothing -- not the crater that the loggers claim was created by the UFO -- but no body either. Young Travis is missing for five days and nights, dressed only in denims, in the mountains where the temperature drops into the 20s (F). When he turns up, he's naked, incoherent, bewhiskered, and looks slightly used. He tells his friends who, once again, delay reporting the return of the dead Walton. Later Walton, in a flashback, informs the authorities that he spent the missing time aboard a kind of space ship (the decor of which closely resembles that of the crashed one in "Alien"), where he was covered by a kind of giant condom by wrinkled, pinkish crew members. The results of the polygraph tests are inconclusive, one of Walton's friends having walked out in the middle of his. (He was hiding a criminal record.) There has been considerable dissension among the five loggers, though the reasons are vague, and the movie ends on a note of uncertainty. The chief logger (Robert Patrick, Agent Doggonit in "The X Files") and Walton visit the site of the incident a few years later. Walton has always blamed the others for leaving him behind and scurrying off. But now the two estranged friends make up, smile, and drive away from the site in peace.
It doesn't really click for some reason. Except for James Garner, who is his reliable self, full of folk wisdom and common sense, the performances aren't very good, and they need to be, because the script wanders around from here to there, sometimes passing beyond implausible into positively dubious. Must ALL the townspeople glare at Patrick and the others -- in the café? At the town hall meeting in the church? And the film has surprisingly little in the way of sense of place, of local color. There is no vastness in this vast wilderness. The interiors of the working-class homes look like generic working-class "homes". And the script is so weak it leaves us in doubt about what's going on with the polygraph tests. The dialog, even when delivered believably, lacks sparkle and tag lines.
On the other hand, a lot of effort evidently went into Walton's experiences aboard the space ship. I don't know whether "Alien" (1979) was such a good influence on space ships or not. Before "Alien" all space ships were shiny, metallic, high-tech, impeccably clean and full of right angles. Since "Alien" they all look like something cobbled together out of Play-Do by a demented five-year-old kid, then poked full of holes, and squirted with organic honey.
And why all this stuff about the horrifying experience anyway? Val Lewton discovered that sometimes the scariest things of all are those that you don't see. They'd have been better off throwing that money into the script and the cast and coming up with an effective psychological drama and mystery. I can see a neat little film coming out of it.
As it is, we're more or less forced into going along with Travis Walton's spectacular story, unless the detailed flashback is lying, as well as the five loggers. Were Walton and the others pulling a hoax for whatever reason? Who knows. Walton must have made some money out of it -- he wrote a detailed book about the event and he's co-writer on this movie. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, of course. There is simply too much evidence from credible people that SOMETHING is going on, something entirely non-paradigmatic, and we don't have the slightest idea what it is. It's a stretch to think that aliens are behind it, but if they are, I have a suggestion for our extra-terrestrial visitors. Next time you decide to pluck somebody up and take him for a long ride into outer space, don't choose some redneck nobodies in boots and cowboy hats, with names like Lamar Oakum and Dwight ("Big Bobbie") Thumm. Drop in on Washington, DC, and make off with a politician. Take your pick. Keep him as long as you like.
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