Fire in the Sky (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right at the end of the opening credits, “Based on a True Story” appears on the screen. But what’s brilliant about Robert Lieberman’s “Fire in the Sky,” based upon the novel by Travis Walton, about an alleged alien abduction that took place in the White Mountains of Arizona in 1975, is that it doesn’t matter whether the viewer thinks that the events portrayed on screen actually happened. What counts is the picture’s terrific ability to make us not want to look away from its images, with or without an extraterrestrial being front and center.
A forestry crew of six are hired by the government to clear trees next to an Apache reservation. Six go up the mountain in the morning, but only five make it back down by sunset. Mike (Robert Patrick), David (Peter Berg), Dallis (Craig Sheffer), Greg (Henry Thomas), and Bobby (Bradley Gregg), clearly in shock, enter a restaurant and decide to call the police about what they witnessed: That their friend Travis (D.B. Sweeney) has been abducted by aliens. This is a strong way to start the film. Although there is a sense of urgency in the action, it is played quiet. Voices increase in decibel, especially when a person is taken for a fool, but the score never penetrates the conflict. Thus, the portentous atmosphere is amplified.
The initial report is so bizarre that the local sheriff (Noble Willingham) feels compelled to request the help of Lieutenant Frank Watters (James Garner), an investigator with a record of having solved all of the cases he’s been assigned. Little do these men know that this missing person case is about to capture the country’s wildest imagination. The story goes for the expected trappings of family members, friends, and other community members’ suspicion and disbelief, but the central performance by Patrick, who plays the leader of the crew, elevates the otherwise tired and predictable dramatic parabola. He plays Mike as a man who wishes to do the right thing even though he is flawed and conflicted. Mike, after all, was the driver when the group decided to leave Travis in the clearing as light from the spacecraft rendered him unconscious.
When focus turns back on the five being pressured to change their story for the “actual” one, the film is gripping. Surprisingly compelling is the lie detector scene. We hang onto every word of each question, fearing that it might be misleading. We stare at the polygraph and the marks made by the examiner. What does a single line mean? A double line? A cross? “M”? Should the examiner be trusted? We have reasons to doubt because it seems as though the investigators, who picked the examiner, have already made up their minds about the case and the men involved. Is confirmation bias at play here?
“Fire in the Sky” offers a most memorable sequence of a man waking up inside a spaceship and enduring all sorts of horrors. We see the aliens eventually, but notice how they’re not front and center for very long. Instead, attention is on how a person processes what’s happening to him: what he sees when he wakes up in a claustrophobic cocoon, how it must feel like to have jelly-like substances on his back and hands, how he struggles to move in a zero-gravity environment. Clearly, the work is concerned with providing details, which do not always have to be gruesome, and commands great control of timing.