I can remember being ten years old and riding my bike to the local video store to pick up Robert Lieberman’s alien abduction film Fire in the Sky (1993). I was obsessed with aliens at the time, thanks in major part to the recent debut of The X-Files (1993-2002) and the ongoing series Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002). I mention this not because I’m overly nostalgic for my childhood but because the last time I watched Fire in the Sky was twenty years ago. The alien probe scene – I’ll describe that in a bit – scared me away from coming back to it. Needless to say, I was excited (albeit ambivalent) when the DVD – newly minted from Warner Archive – popped up in my mail box.
To a ten year old, Fire in the Sky comes across as a deep movie. When Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) is abducted by aliens, his lumberjack co-workers (Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Henry Thomas, Bradley Gregg, and Craig Sheffer) are put under the interrogation lights of a skeptical cop (James Garner). As the crew testifies, little gaps appear across their stories and while we are shown a flashback to the abduction scene, the cop reminds us to remain skeptical. Unfortunately, Fire in the Sky isn’t Rashomon (1950) or The Usual Suspects (1995). It isn’t consistent enough – in terms of genre, narration, or even characterization – to be anything more than a mess.
My main criticism of the film boils down to this. Travis Walton is the most nuanced character that the screenwriters provide us with. He’s a dreamer, a bit of a flake, and a decent man. Essentially, he has three – pre-abduction – character traits, putting him up by two on everyone he is surrounded by. Moreover, because Sweeney has been provided with pieces of a character, his performance tends to overshadow that of his colleagues. Now, here lies the problem. Travis disappears about twenty minutes into the film and he spends nearly an hour of the film as a missing person. Unfortunately, the void that Travis’s character leaves is filled by a peanut gallery of cardboard cutouts that exist purely as cogs in the narrative or as orators of exposition.
For instance, there’s “The Asshole” played by Craig Sheffer. He doesn’t get along with Travis and he’s a bit of a lone wolf. We’re told he has a criminal record. Beyond that, we don’t know much about him. Why is “The Asshole” an asshole? Well, because it legitimizes the cop’s theory that foul play was involved. Meanwhile, Garner’s cop only exists to ask skeptical questions. Every line of dialogue he delivers must end in an eroteme that prompts the other characters to deliver trite backstory. I can remember trying to write a screenplay around the time Fire in the Sky came out. My older cousin read it and complained that the characters lacked any psychological motivation. Essentially, my characters existed to serve my needs, not their own. Yet, my youth and inexperience provided me with an excuse. I’m not sure what the hell happened to the screenwriters here (and having a cop tell a lumberjack that he must have “an axe to grind” doesn’t help matters). These conversations go on for almost an hour before Travis is found naked and mute in the woods.
And that’s when the movie gets good again. Travis returns and he’s clearly been disturbed by his experiences. The probing of the cops, believers, non-believers, family, and friends finally causes him to have a psychological breakthrough in which he remembers the abduction. The fifteen minute, dialogue free, sequence still has the ability to terrify. We watch as Travis awakes in a cocoon, discovers he is in a zero gravity environment, and comes across the aliens. Then, the aliens grab him, strip him, and rape his face. Goop is slathered down his throat before a hose is forced down it. Liberman cuts to the various rusted and rudimentary tools the aliens are using in between shots of Travis attempting to lash out in pain. The only sounds, aside from the musical score, are those of Travis gagging. The aliens remain silent.
Then, the aliens stab Travis in the ear or neck with a pin that serves as an anchor point for a yet unseen device. They force his eyeball open with a spoon-like harness that looking shockingly similar to that which tortured Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and we notice it has a small hole in it. Finally, the main operational device emerges from above the aliens. Hoses reach out of it and attach themselves to the newly formed outputs from Travis’s ear and throat, the glaring red laser sight of the device begins to target Travis’s eye, and a fine-point needle makes its appearance. The sequence is masterful from the standpoint of montage and timing. Moreover, viewers tend to forget that the sequence does not begin in the menacing register. Initially, Travis is exploring and there is something liberating about it. It gradually becomes terrifying, a quality that exponentially increases as the sequence does. Sergei Eisenstein would have been proud.
Yet, in the end, that’s all Fire in the Sky has to offer: one horrifying alien abduction sequence (that you can now watch on YouTube) and one performance. It spends far too much time on vaguely defined characters that we simply do not care about. If you’re already of that same opinion regarding this film and you were hoping the DVD would sweeten the deal, this package – like the characters – is featureless. Moreover, the video transfer is a bit rough and inconsistent (especially in the night sequences). What makes Fire in the Sky such a monumental disappointment is all the pieces are there to make a good movie and its potential occasionally shines through. It would be much easier to forgive if it did not try at all.
Editor’s note: Fire in the Sky is available as a manufacture on demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive.