Over the years, Cinema Fearité has handled both alien invasions (Xtro, Without Warning, Prey) and outer space horror (Event Horizon, Galaxy of Terror, The Green Slime). But what about that middle ground, the alien abduction movie? We’re checking that off the list this week with the 1993 sci-fi thriller Fire in the Sky.
Fire in the Sky is about a pair of friends named Travis Walton and Mike Rogers (D.B. Sweeney from Hear No Evil and Robert Patrick from Terminator 2, respectively) who work on a logging crew in the Arizona wilderness. One night while driving through the woods after work, the guys and the rest of their crew stumble across a “fire in the sky” that ends up being a UFO. Against the others’ urgings, Travis gets out of the truck to investigate, and is abducted. A police lieutenant named Frank Watters (James Garner from “The Rockford Files”) is brought in to investigate the disappearance, suspecting Mike and the rest of the logging crew of foul play. When Travis shows back up after five days, the guys are off the hook – but a whole new can of worms is opened up.
As many entries into the UFO subgenre of filmmaking are, Fire in the Sky is one of those “based on a true story” movies. The screenplay, written by Tracy Tormé (who wrote for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Sliders”), was based on a book written by the real Travis Walton about his 1975 interstellar ordeal. Director Robert Lieberman (“The Dead Zone,” “Haven”) alternately emphasizes the mystery and science fiction aspects of the story, and while Fire in the Sky isn’t technically a horror movie, it’s got plenty of horrific imagery and ideas.
For much of the movie, Fire in the Sky works as a procedural, with Lieutenant Watters investigating Travis’ disappearance and interviewing the principal subjects. The plot meanders a bit, going off on tangents that include a superfluous love story and a tense feud within the lumberjacks’ ranks, but at the root of the journey is the search for Travis, or, as Watters believes that his buddies have killed him, his body. The mystery only becomes more intense when Travis reappears, as the traumatized man struggles to come to terms with what has happened to him.
Although it’s light on visceral scares, there are a couple of scenes in Fire in the Sky that provide a ton of psychological terror. The first is the actual abduction scene, which finds Travis, the only one of the loggers who approaches the UFO, being tossed around like a rag doll before finally levitating up into the craft. The second is a flashback scene that Travis has when he is trying to piece together his missing five days. In the memory, Travis initially explores the inside of the UFO, but eventually, he winds up strapped to a gurney so that a pair of aliens can perform a barrage of clinical experiments on him. In a popular culture climate of UFO abductions and alien probing, these two scenes in Fire on the Sky traumatized an entire generation of moviegoers.
In addition to D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, and James Garner, the cast in Fire in the Sky is loaded with familiar faces. The most fun appearance is a wink-nudge to another classic alien movie, as Henry Thomas, best known as Elliot in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (but more recently seen in horror films like Ouija: Origin of Evil and Gerald’s Game), shows up as one of the lumberjacks. The rest of the logging crew is rounded out by horror convention staples Craig Sheffer (Nightbreed), Peter Berg (Shocker), and Bradley Gregg (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors). Additionally, Mike’s wife is played by Kathleen Wilhoite (Witchboard), and Travis’ girlfriend is portrayed by Georgia Emelin (“The Invisible Man”). It’s an accomplished B-movie cast for what is basically a big-budget B-movie.
Since its release, Fire in the Sky has become somewhat of a cult classic due to its showing on cable superstations like SyFy and Chiller. It’s far from a classic, but it deserves to be remembered, if only because it’s very difficult to forget.