Directed by Robert Lieberman; Starring Robert Patrick, D.B. Sweeney, Craig Sheffer, James Garner
Travis Walton has had a tough go of it.
Since one night in 1975, he’s been accused of being a liar, a phony, a huckster—and a crazy person. But he’s never changed his story. Hollywood has—but not him.
Fire In the Sky is the 1993 Robert Lieberman-directed adaptation of Walton’s personal account of his time aboard what he believes to be an alien spacecraft. Based on Walton’s book, it follows the story of a small-time logging outfit working up in the mountains of Arizona on a government clearing contract. The film opens with a truck careening down a dark mountainside, smashing into trees and almost rolling off the road.
When the men reach the local bar, they’re met by friendly-if-teasing remarks about how they look. And how do they look? Like they’ve all seen a ghost. Or worse.
An out-of-town detective (an earnest James Garner) is called in by the local sheriff to helm the investigation. But an investigation into what? It seems Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) has gone missing. Or has he?
While the detective gets the men to open up about what happened up on that mountain, we’re introduced to the different characters and the group dynamic that will be the focus of the film. Robert Patrick plays Mike Rogers, Travis’ best friend, boss, and brother to the woman Travis wants to marry; Craig Sheffer plays Allan Dallis, a drifter and troublemaker who is known to be no fan of Travis. Patrick carries much of the first half of the film, suffering through a disintegrating marriage and the pressures of the investigation into the disappearance.
Sheffer turns in a solid performance as the aggressive and insecure Dallis, a character that feels far more vibrant than that of Boone, his character in Nightbreed. As much as I enjoy that movie, the acting is flat. Director Clive Barker’s focus was clearly on the special effects and atmosphere; here, director Robert Lieberman got solid performances out of the entire cast, especially Patrick, Garner, Sheffer, and Sweeney.
This is not so much a film about an alien abduction—if that’s what it was in the first place—but about friendship, and about how a small town reacts to high strange events. It’s about how if one person steps outside of the boundaries of what we consider to be real and normal, people tend to lose their minds. They can lose sight of everything—including their compassion and love for one another.
This is most succinctly illustrated in a rather powerful scene in which Robert Patrick’s character walks into a town hall meeting where the entire community is haranguing the sheriff about “what everybody already knows.” A man is missing, and the mob-mentality is taking over. A lynching may not be justice, but average people are more than willing to pretend it is, when there’s enough fear and anger in the air. When a prevailing narrative takes hold, the truth of the matter becomes irrelevant.
These themes are communicated, thankfully, with little in the way of typical Hollywood bias against flyover country folk. Some of the accents come across as a little off, but the film doesn’t dwell on the ignorance and backwardness of small town and rural life. Having grown up in a community not dissimilar to that portrayed here, I’ve grown tired of seeing people living in the country depicted as racist, gap-toothed monsters. The town and its people feel authentic. That seems like a small thing, but for a movie about the pack mentality and paranoia, it’s important that it got that part right.
The acting and direction is solid, and the cinematography on this film is superb. The night sequences are often accompanied by dark blue and red lights, lending the darkness an ethereal, spooky quality. Daylight sequences seem a bit fuzzy and golden for a dream-like, idyllic effect. What could have been a cheap alien spookshow is elevated above the typical low-budget pack through this kind of film craftsmanship.
Most people around my age (late 20s/early 30s) recall seeing this movie in the early or mid-nineties. It came out right around or before the debut of The X-Files, and was following on the grey alien pop culture explosion fostered by Whitley Strieber’s Communion books. These ideas were re-emerging in American superconsciousness in a big way. Most people won’t remember the town and interpersonal dynamics that lie at the heart of the film. What they do remember, however, is the horrific flashback sequence that Travis experiences after he mysteriously returns home.
As Walton slowly re-integrates back into a thankful but suspicious community, he begins to suffer mild hallucinations and post traumatic stress episodes. This culminates in the film’s most terrifying sequence: Walton’s recollection about his time aboard the alien spacecraft.
Now, this is where the film most sharply deviates from the “true” account. The actual Travis Walton has come to believe that his experience onboard the craft was not meant to be negative; he believes that when he wandered into that clearing, the aliens accidentally injured him. They pulled him aboard in an attempt to provide him medical attention. His subsequent (if understandable) panic terrorized them.
Not so in this film. The aliens here are portrayed as truly sinister. Walton emerges in a slimy black cocoon straight out of an H.R. Giger painting, floats around in zero G, and is harassed, chased, and experimented upon by twisted monsters. The practical effects in this sequence are simply outstanding, and the darkness, fear, and confusion fostered here make for the film’s most intense sequence.
You’ll have a hard time getting it out of your head, as each moment escalates Travis’ (and our) fear. You will be hard-pressed to find more intense science-fiction terror on film anywhere. Some viewers may find the sequence tame (there’s very little gore), but for those of you who have predilection toward being frightened by such things, stay far, far away.
My only complaint is that this film does nothing to challenge the idea that these events may not be extraterrestrial in nature. There is a lack of compelling evidence to support the extraterrestrial hypothesis for abduction experiences. Still, the film works within that particular cultural meme, and it works quite well. Skeptics, believers, and everyone in-between can enjoy the film for what it is.
Fire In the Sky is a quality movie—and a solid horror experience. Its special effects and horror sequences are nicely complimented by quality filmmaking and acting, all laid over a solid script about friendship, community, and the lies our society tells itself to keep its sanity. It’s a horror movie that says something. That’s rare indeed.
Good luck getting a good night’s sleep after watching this one.