Monday, September 07, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Fire in the Sky (1993)

On November 5, 1975, in Sitgreave National Forest in Arizona, blue-collar logger Travis Walton disappeared without a trace.

Five friends and co-workers, including so-called "pillar of the community," Mike Rogers, re-counted a harrowing tale of a flying saucer encounter...but the local authorities immediately suspected a more earthbound solution: foul play.

But then Walton miraculously returned -- more or less intact -- to the small town of Snowflake five days later, and gave the world one of the most notorious "alien abduction" cases ever reported. The media, UFOlogists and sight-seekers descended on the town, creating a circus atmosphere.

Some investigators believed Walton's incredible tale of flying saucers, alien abduction, Greys, and probing medical tests, especially since it is one of the few UFO-related stories to feature multiple eyewitnesses (and furthermore, eyewitnesses who have passed lie detector tests on more than one occasion).

Other investigators viewed the bizarre incident as a brilliantly and elaborately orchestrated hoax. On the latter front, the skeptics pointed to Walton's apparent involvement in a check fraud scam some years earlier, and the fact that the alien abduction drama The UFO Incident had aired on television shortly before his disappearance. Is that where Travis got the idea to "stage" his own disappearance? Was this all just a scheme to hit "the big time" and make some money from the story-hungry national tabloids?

Where does the truth reside? Of course, we can never know the answer for certain, but 1993's drama Fire in the Sky, written by Tracy Torme and directed by Robert Lieberman dramatizes Travis Walton's unusual story from the perspective of the men who initially reported this "close encounter."

What remains so unique about Fire in the Sky is that it eschews sensationalism and focuses intently on the human cost of those involved in Travis's disappearance, particularly family man Mike Rogers.

Robert Patrick ably and sympathetically portrays Rogers, and despite his second billing, Fire in the Sky is really his movie. We follow the agonized, haunted Rogers as he deals with his own pervasive guilt over leaving an unconscious Travis behind in a field on the night of the UFO encounter, as he becomes a pariah in Snowflake, and as his family and friends turn against him one-by-one. Adding insult to injury, even Travis ultimately blames Rogers for his actions on the night of November 5, without truly considering that Rogers -- as leader of a logging crew -- had four other men he was responsible for protecting in that situation.

In terms of drama, it's illuminating to note how the UFO encounter reflects the dynamics of the already-existing friendship between Travis and Mike. (In the film) Travis daydreams of opening up a huge motorcycle dealership with Mike. He flits from one get-rich-quick-scheme to the next, never landing long enough to consider reality. He speaks of romantic notions like love (for Mike's sister, Dana), and doesn't seem tethered to any real responsibilities. Mike is the polar oposite: "grounded" by conventional concerns like mortgage, money and family. He has no time to fantasize about impossible things. He's worried about the next paycheck, the next contract...the well-being of his daughters and wife.

When the UFO spirits away Travis -- whose feet are already metaphorically off-the-ground -- it is again, Mike who must clean-up and interface with the unpleasantness of the "real world." He must contend with the responsibilities and repercussions associated with Travis's disappearance and return. Mike must be the stalwart leader of men and still, somehow, hold out hope for their joined future, so that his co-workers don't succumb to hysteria and pressure from law enforcement.

Travis's encounter with the aliens (aboard their spaceship) in Fire in the Sky is dramatized in the film's last fifteen minutes or so, in a self-contained set-piece of sorts. The depiction of the alien ship (exterior and interior) leans heavily towards the terrifying, an interpretation which doesn't accurately reflect Walton's real-life testimony about his experience. In fact, screenwriter Torme reportedly apologized for the frightening views of the aliens in the film, noting that the "horror" aspect of the journey had been insisted upon by higher-ups in the production.

Yet, in terms of theme and narrative, the horror movie approach to the alien experience remains undeniably effective because it seems to scare Travis straight. After he returns to Earth and recovers (arriving almost as a newborn: naked and in the fetal position), he stops dreaming impossible dreams, marries Mike's sister, and commits to a stable job and the family life. He has metaphorically been "reborn." By contrast, a shattered Mike -- who has taken all the heat for Travis over his sojourn -- retreats from the world entirely; at least until Travis arrives offering conciliation and forgiveness. Rogers -- a meat and potatoes guy if there ever was one -- has been forced to open his mind to possibilities (to dreams and fantasies?) he had never before considered, so he has become a reflection of Travis, pre-ordeal. When they resume their friendship, Mike and Travis again balance one other.

The alien abduction scene in Fire in the Sky is probably the scene that most viewers remember most from the film. And that's entirely understandable, as it presents the interior of the alien spaceship as a world approximating a charnel house: a dark, dank locale of enormous and inhuman suffering and pain. With vertigo-provoking photography, we travel with Travis (via flashback..) inside an extra-terrestrial chamber that looks like something akin to the mad cannibal house in Tobe Hooper's seminal Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We are even treated to a trademark Hooper shot from that film: a close-up view of a victim's eyeball, wide and almost popping with unbearable terror.

The alien spaceship set-piece begins as Travis -- feeling pancake syrup fall on his face after hiding under a kitchen table -- recalls a similar feeling: something moist and goopy touching his lips aboard the alien ship. He opens his eyes to find himself inside a chamber that resembles a fleshy coffin made of coruscating human fat tissue. Travis then breaks through a membrane wall only to find himself weightless inside a huge, organic chamber. He finds himself in a room of alien space suits, and there is a splendid jolt involving one such space suit coming to life, unobserved, behind him. Then Travis is captured by aliens and dragged down a claustrophobic tunnel to an examining room.

The long trip to the operating theater is grotesque, and horrifying. The floors are ashy -- as if composed of ground-up human bone. Relics of previous experiments have been mindlessly cast-off everywhere: eye glasses, boots, sneakers, etc. Then the aliens come at Travis with unclean, byzantine surgical instruments including saws, drills and needles. It's clear that these aliens -- unaware or uninterested in human pain and discomfort -- boast a very different concept of "hygiene" than we do. Lieberman's camera then barrels down from a high angle, right into Travis's terrified face, and it's here that we get that familiar Hooper eyeball shot.

Without exaggeration, this fifteen-minute or-so sequence in Fire in the Sky is a masterpiece of production design, special effects, camera-work and editing. There is a deeply diabolical, intelligent nature to these alien invaders (they have the eyes of old men...), and you never once get a sense that you are looking at animatronics, constructed sets, or special effects. On the contrary, the persistent use of the P.O.V. perspective lands us in Travis's (shaking...) boots as he countenances the impossible, and the terrifying.

There are aspects of Fire in the Sky that simply don't work, which is the reason why, I suspect, the film has not achieved much mainstream or genre critical success. The police procedural aspects of the tale (seemingly de rigueur in the 1990s) go nowhere and fail to resolve in any satisfactory fashion. And, for much of the film, Travis (D.B Sweeney) remains something of an enigma; an opaque "dreamer" but not so much an identifiable or individual personality. And I also suspect that many audience members were non-plussed by the film's straight-faced dramatic approach. The film more or less takes Walton's incredible story as simple fact, rather than attempting to punch holes in it, and then proceeds to calculate the human toll of such a strange encounter.

Where it counts most: as a human story of loyalty and friendship, and one focusing on Mike Rogers, Fire in the Sky succeeds. And that (admittedly-inaccurate) tour of an alien saucer remains nightmare fodder, pure and simple. Taken in tandem, an image starts to coalesce here: of simple, groping humanity opening his eyes to the great mysteries of our time, and coming to understand that his connection to other men is the thing he needs to take with him into that vast unknown.


  1. Nice post and yes, I believe that Fire in the Sky was certainly sensationalized.

    For you and your readers, there is a little known set of videos from 1977 and 1977 with actual Walton footage that turned up in late 2007 or early 2008.

    I thought you and your readers may like to see it since it has the actual lie detector story amongst other comments from Travis Walton and the others.

    Lost UFO Vintage Footage Found

  2. See, now this is exactly why I love coming to your blog in the mornings. There I am innocently eating my cornflakes and BAM! you throw a movie at me that I loved once upon a time, but completely forgot about as the years have gone on. Somewhere In Time was another forgotten gem that I rediscovered thanks to you.

    Fire In The Sky was a guilty pleasure when I was in high school. I even did a school project on how the UFO/abduction phenomenon developed and used footage from this movie as part of my video presentation.

    What I find funny though (and I didn't realise this until your review) is that what we have here are 2 Chris Carter alumns in their pre-Chris Carter days doing a film about alien abductions. That's gotta be an indication of some sort of conspiracy, surely.

    Thanks for the flashback, great way to start the day. I'll be revisiting this gem on the weekend.


  3. Hey Henry!

    Thanks for the comment (and the compliment!)

    I hadn't seen Fire in the Sky in years either, and after just having watched re-watched X-Files Season Eight, it was weird to see Robert Patrick in another alien abduction related role, as you note.

    Especially because he talks to "Dana" (his character's sister) in Fire in the Sky, and of course, "Dana" is also "Dana Scully" on The X-Files.

    I felt my spin tingle when I heard that familiar Patrick voice use Scully's first name...


  4. what do you say? a sci-fi movie about aliens with important public issues like friendship and loyalty? i have to get it to my computer and see it! :)

  5. Anonymous2:47 AM

    I stumbled across the alien spaceship scene on Youtube and it shook me to the marrow of my being. Went to IMDB next to find reviews of this disturbing movie. Yours is far and away the best and most thoughtful, Berardinelli's is the worst.

    Thank you and God bless.