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."
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.