Fire in the Sky
Director: Robert Lieberman
Genre: Science Fiction
Synopsis: A man is abducted by aliens while his friends, family, and co-workers must contend with the law and media to uncover what happened to him. Based on a true story.
Overview: Given this week’s release of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival it seemed appropriate to turn to an earlier film that examined an alien incident within the framework of human drama. Robert Lieberman’s Fire in the Sky has developed a cult reputation in the years following its 1993 release, with much of its following centered around the film’s tense and terrifying climax. We’ll get to that climax of course, but it’s important to note that it’s only as surprising as it is because the rest of the film is so unlike the alien films of its time. For most of its runtime, Fire in the Sky is grounded in the mundane, focused on the little lives of the people left behind, and it’s fascinating in its attempts at uncovering something intimate within a story often told in the largest possible way.
Based on the story of logger Travis Walton and adapted from his book The Walton Experience, Fire in the Sky documents Walton’s (D.B. Sweeney) disappearance in the White Mountains of Arizona with all the proficiency of a made for television docudrama. That is to say the filmmaking is solid but never reaches for anything beyond that in terms of production design and acting. The small-town relationships, fear, and prejudices that arise in Snowflake, AZ in the midst of Walton’s disappearance have the intent of authenticity but the delivery of a fabricated reality where these relationships are clear, easy, and spelled out for us. That sounds like damning praise, but even when the film falters in its dramatic range, there’s something exceptional and rarely done here. Once Walton disappears, we don’t find him again until almost halfway through the film. During that time, the film examines his co-workers who were with Walton the night of his disappearance, right up to the moment where he stepped out of the truck and approached the beam shining down from a mysterious craft and was seemingly struck dead. We play witness to the panic of five men, faced not only with accusations surrounding their co-worker’s disappearance but also grappling with the fact that they saw something that changes their small-town beliefs at a fundamental level. Most of the fallout from these events through the perspective of Walton’s boss and best friend Mike Rogers, played by a near-unrecognizable Robert Patrick. Patrick, most famous for his coolly inhuman role in T2, is exquisitely human in this film, with the best parts of his performance still coming down to facial expressions instead of dialogue.
There’s something very Stephen King-like in Lieberman’s delivery of this story and focus on the ordinary in the midst of the extraordinary. Even with the possible existence of aliens, there’s still a place for a crumbling marriage, a workplace rivalry, and a government representative who turns his nose up at the hardworking lower-class. While the dialogue doesn’t always have the conviction it needs to fully pull us into this world, Lieberman gives us a compelling reason to stay invested in this story beyond its genre elements. As a result, Fire in the Sky becomes less of a film about why aliens kidnapped Travis Walton, but why small-town America is such a breeding ground for mistrust. But oh, the aliens.
After Walton is discovered in a fugue state, he begins having flashbacks to his abduction, leading a climax that is without question one of the best alien abduction sequences in film, and also wildy different from the rest of the film. As we watch Walton escape from a sort of embryonic sac and crawl through a ship that looks more biological than mechanical, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that this is part of the same movie where only minutes ago we watching Robert Patrick defend he and his co-workers’ innocence in a town hall meeting. Lieberman’s direction becomes more confident as we’re treated to a fifteen-minute horror movie that is dark, and lonely, and so detached from the love and friendship Walton knew before his abduction. This tonal and aesthetic deviation works to show what a significant shift in reality Walton undergoes. We are placed in his position and taken from a world of warm of colors to one of dead hues of brown and gray, and yet, the cold questioning eyes of the aliens are very much the same as those of the townsfolk of Snowflake, prodding and cutting with their own, less physical instruments. The film’s brief moments of cross-cutting between Snowflake and Walton’s experience on the spaceship highlight this idea, and while Fire in the Sky doesn’t quite follow through with the potential in this cinematic technique, there are clear parallels between Walton’s abduction by aliens, and Rogers and his crew’s abduction by aliens they thought they recognized as their friends and family.
Fire in the Sky is partly held back by its decision to stick closely to Walton’s story, instead of just being inspired by it. The ideas about small-town prejudices and financial grief are only teased, but help give the film a resonance that goes beyond the ordinary alien film. Fire in the Sky is more interested in people than aliens, but just below the surface, partly exposed like some strange bone fragment is the unforgettable idea that these two beings aren’t so different once their gaze settles on a target to examine in the efforts of absolute truth.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures