If a film purports to be based on a true story, but features a man being abducted by aliens, does that make it a drama or a science fiction film? After all, science fiction inherently requires an element of science-based speculation beyond present reality. If a film claims alien abductions actually happen, that’s no longer speculation – it is an apparent statement of fact. Truth be told, I am quite comfortable classifying Robert Lieberman’s 1993 film Fire in the Sky as science fiction. While it is based on Travis Walton’s personal account of his 1975 abduction experience, not for one second do I believe he was telling the truth. I think your best option is to take the film entirely as fiction, and ignore it’s “based on a true story” screen caption.
Arizona, 1975. While driving home from working in the forest, a team of loggers witness an eerie red light in the distance. When they approach the source, they discover a flying saucer floating above the ground. One of the loggers, Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), is struck by a powerful beam of light and thrown several metres backwards. Thinking him dead, his companions drive off in a panic. When one of them, team leader Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), returns to confirm Walton’s death, the body and the UFO have both disappeared.
Taken as a work of fiction, Fire in the Sky is a broadly entertaining rural thriller. It is essentially split into two halves. In one, Walton’s disappearance leads to a police investigation and the accusation of murder against his co-workers and friends. In the other, Walton’s unexpected return – seemingly out of nowhere – sparks off the question of whether or not the entire affair was an elaborate hoax. The film very much takes Walton at his word: there was an abduction, and it is played out on-screen in an end-of-second-act flashback.
There is a distinct “made for television” vibe for much of the film, due partly to its modest production values and partly to its performances and script. The group of loggers are relatively well played – particularly Craig Sheffer (Nightbreed) as the volatile and belligerent Allan Dallis – but as the police investigators James Garner and Noble Willingham are left playing plot cyphers without any distinguishing features or motivations. For an actor as famous as Garner that’s a problem, since his cadence and mannerism are familiar enough that it seems he is barely acting at all. The screenplay, by Tracy Tormé (Sliders, Star Trek: The Next Generation), lets him down terribly. The film also suffers from a paucity of female characters. To an extent this is understandable – all of the UFO witnesses were men – but where there are women in the film they are rather sidelined and under-used. Kathleen Willhoite does a great job playing Mike Roger’s wife Katie, but there is a world of character and story opportunities left on the floor.
When the reveal of Walton’s alien experience is revealed, it is as an excellently realised and horrific set piece. Strong use of physical effects provide disturbingly realistic extra-terrestrials, a strong simulation of zero gravity, and a deeply confronting medical examination. It is this sequence that viewers of the film will remember the most, and it alone is likely worth the time spend with the movie. It is also entirely made up; the real Travis Walton described a much more sedate and vague experience that clearly was not going to be anywhere near as entertaining for the audience.
Fire in the Sky is entertaining – particularly for enthusiasts of UFO culture – but it is only that. Further possibilities to explore the real-life events or the psychological effects of the presented experience are ignored in favour of something more mundane and by-the-numbers. What is fascinating is the film’s place in the American cultural zeitgeist. Almost exactly six months after its original release the television drama The X Files launched on Fox. Within a year that was one of the USA’s most popular series, and sparked off a wave of UFO and paranormal-related productions not seen since the 1970s alien craze when Walton alleged his own experience took place. There is something about tales of alien encounters and abductions that appeals to audiences around the world: a fear of kidnap, and a fear of not being believed. It makes me feel a little sorry for not believing Travis Walton.