Fire in the Sky

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.

7 replies »

  1. Fire in the Sky is such a brilliant film, often overlooked I think. That alien abduction and then the experiments carried out while the subject is wake are truly terrifying!

  2. I went ahead and watched this one yesterday (I’m surprised that I don’t recall this movie coming out when it did; i don’t remember hearing a thing about it). The premise of this is excellent, but I think it could have been executed better; it dragged in parts; the screenplay didn’t stay on-track…

    But the thing that irked me the most was the bad acting, and terrible fake accents. Were they supposed to sound like rednecks? I had a hard time buying Robert Patrick in this role; maybe he is just born to play the villain. lol. And Craig Sheffer, who I typically like, was terrible and way over-the-top. I blame the director more than the actors b/c they’re both typically good actors. I thought Peter Berg and Henry Thomas were decent…

    But yeah, the sequence you and the other poster are talking about was top-notch directing; that entire sequence was brilliant. And yes, one of the most terrifying things captured on screen. And the design of those aliens, the prosthetic was amazing, as was the alien in “Predator”. I like to see prosthetics more than unimaginative CGI…

    I wanted the survivor to provide more detail, and it would have been interesting to explore more about the aliens motives; and I am not sure if he escaped, or did they release him? So overall, I felt this could have been so much better; it needed a script to keep things on-track and not drag things that didn’t matter; that may be why this film isn’t a classic; with this premise, it should have been…

    On another note, DB Sweeny looked like Emilio Estevez, and Robert Patrick looked like Eric Stoltz. lol.

    • “it would have been interesting to explore more about the aliens motives”

      No way! That’s actually one of the things I loved: the lack of explanation. I prefer that, for a story like this, key information be left to the imagination. Learning about the motives of the aliens might have cheapened the movie as a whole, I think.

      I didn’t mind the… shaky acting so much. I mean, it is possible I miss these actors. And DB Sweeny does NOT look like Emilio Estevez–no matter how much I try to contort my brain in order to try and see the resemblance. hahaha

  3. DB looks like Emilio in THIS movie at times; not so much when he’s older, but in this one here I kept thinking he looks just like Emilio. if you rewatch this one sometime maybe you’ll see it, too. But yeah, I was wondering if he escaped these aliens or if they released him…

    The reason I want to know the aliens motives is b/c they say this is based off a true story. If this were a true story, wouldn’t you want to know WHY aliens are abducting humans and experimenting on them? lol. And if they released said human afterwards – or if the human found a way to escape; that tip could come in handy for someone in the future! lol.

    If this were merely a fictional piece of work I’d agree with you, no explanation needed. You know how there are so many remakes nowadays, i think this film should get a remake, and make this one less campy and stronger acting. This film dragged too much; so much of the same scenes over and over where the guys would go into town and people suspect them of murder, and they defend themselves, etc. We got it, we got it, you’re vehemently claiming your innocence, but do we have to claim your innocence every other scene? I’d much rather cut those scenes that drag the story to make more room for details about the abduction.

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