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June 17, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #24 - Fire in the Sky

By this point in my blogging career, I've covered about 47 different things that terrified me as a child. I wouldn't say I was a weakling (even though I was), I'd simply say that I was easily influenced. What became perhaps my biggest fear was started by the work of that dastardly Robert Stack on Unsolved Mysteries. Of course, I'm talking about the imminent threat of an alien attack and/or an alien abduction. This fear even carried to the point when my 9 year-old self became convinced that he saw a set of flying lights in the sky, and carried out through the point when he was asked to meet with his elementary school's guidance counselor to deal with his claims.

(In news I'd assume is unrelated, this was around the same time when my parents began to worry that I had mental deficiencies.)

So when 1993 rolled around and the sensational ad campaign for Fire in the Sky - BASED ON A TRUE STORY! - came around, slightly older The Mike became extremely intrigued. Unfortunately, he didn't yet have the wits to convince his parents to take him to see the film, and was left assuming that their rationale of "the guy in the paper said it was bad" and "no, there aren't any cool actors in it" were simply a guise to keep him from being whisked away by his own imagination again. They must have waved something shiny in front of him too, because he quickly forgot the film existed and went back to playing Tecmo Super Bowl on his Nintendo Entertainment System, only to discover it again at a later time.
Now that I'm a fully maximized version of The Mike, I kind of see their point. Fire in the Sky - though definitely flawed and awfully mucked up - would have brought some kind of terror to my young mind. Though its vision of abduction varies from the "real" accounts by author/victim Travis Walton (played here by The Cutting Edge heartthrob D.B. Sweeney), there's a lot of fear to be found in the film's depiction of abduction.

One thing my parents definitely had wrong was the commentary on the cast. Though none of the cast were big names, they represent a slew of recognizable faces. Most prominent is Robert Patrick of Terminator 2 fame, who gives a strong performance as Walton's boss/friend who becomes the focal point of the small town investigation into Travis' disappearance. The first hour of the film is primarily focused on Patrick and his crew, which also includes Peter Berg (The Last Seduction, Cop Land) and Craig Sheffer (Nightbreed, The Program) - who I've often assumed were the same person. Guess they win this round.
Fire in the Sky never really focuses on sci-fi, horror, or drama entirely, which seems to stem from a desire to present the "true events" as feasible to the viewer. Patrick does an admirable job carrying the drama and making us care about the people who witnessed the abduction; which is needed considering how little screen-time is actually spent with Sweeney's Walton. Patrick gets a lot of help from director Robert Lieberman, who never takes the material lightly. Also assisting the first half of the film to stay afloat is the fantastic James Garner as the investigator called in to deal with the disappearance. Garner brings credibility to both the film and the plot, and his character starts to believe the witnesses the film gains tension.

Once Walton reappears in the story, his traumatic encounter is unleashed upon us. The fantastic scenery aboard the alien craft seems natural, and it's nice to see that the designers didn't fall into the trap of trying to create a ship that's full of shiny gadgets and smooth contours. It surprised me to read that the producers instructed screenwriter Tracy Torme to change many details of Walton's account to punch up the abduction, as the film seems restrained in this regard. This adds to the intensity when Travis is brought into his hosts' scientific lair, and their experiments are extremely unsettling to me even as an adult.
I've noted that the film is full of flaws, and part of me wonders if I'm recommending the idea behind the film moreso than the film itself. While I never fully found myself interested in Travis Walton as a character - partially because of his restrained screen-time pre-abduction, partially because Sweeney seems to be channeling a boring version of Paul Rudd in the role - I admire the film for showing a version of this story that manages to offer some space-bound chills while looking at the Earth-bound effects on others. Fire in the Sky doesn't hit on enough points to be a full-fledged sci-fi classic, but its attempts to make us "believe" are appreciated by my vulnerable mind. If Travis Walton did experience this all, maybe that radio tower that little The Mike was terrified of really was something else.

I'll keep watching out, just in case Robert Stack was right.

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Emily said...

I'll have to check this film out at some point!

When I was a kid the thought of aliens/alien abduction also terrified me, and I also attribute most of that to Unsolved Mysteries!! There was a particular episode that I remember that terrified me above all in which a couple of women were exposed to radiation from a spaceship and got cancer. My fear of aliens combined with my fear of getting cancer (probably due to all those St. Jude specials I watched), scared the living daylights out of me!!

Emily said...

I have located what I think was the specific episode that scared me above all others- I'm pretty sure it was this Texas UFO one- and it's available to watch on youtube (for now).

Here are the links if you're in the mood for some old school Unsolved Mysteries:

Stacia said...

I saw "Fire in the Sky" in the theaters on original release and, while I wasn't impressed with much of it, the stuff that happens after the syrup spills on the table has always stuck with me. You're right, it's not a bad film, but it's not a classic by any stretch.

deadlydolls said...

I just watched this last night (craving some early 90s action for no real good reason). I agree with a lot of your points. The abduction stuff is done incredibly well and Patrick holds himself strongly, but what's with that blah rushed ending?