Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Fire In The Sky (1993)

I recently had the occasion to dust off my VHS copy of Fire In The Sky - which I bought from my favorite local, independent video rental store when it went out of business a good fifteen to twenty years ago - and play it for someone who'd never seen the movie before. It was a good opportunity for me to watch it again, as well, since I hadn't seen it in a long time. The movie came out in 1993 - the same year that The X-Files hit the airwaves - at a time when our cultural fascination with UFOs and alien abductions was strong. I was about nine years old then, and it would be a few more years before I started watching The X-Files. I can't say if Fire In The Sky was the original catalyst for my interest in the phenomenon, but I could make a strong case for it. It was my older brother who decided to go out and see the movie in the theater for his birthday, and I decided to tag along. Depending on how you look at it, that was either a huge mistake, or one of the best things I ever did. I remember watching the climax of the movie through closed fingers, and spent many a night afterwards praying to God that I wouldn't be abducted by aliens in my sleep (this being the only thing that ever caused me - a budding atheist - to resort to prayer).

While this movie no longer gives me nightmares - as is often the case after you grow up and shake off the naivety of your childhood beliefs in the unnatural things that lurk among the shadows - I still count it as the best depiction of the alien abduction experience I've ever seen in a movie (and there have been a lot of those recently, many within the found footage genre, but none of them capturing the phenomenon as perfectly as I believe Fire In The Sky does). The last time I watched this movie was in 2008 (incidentally, the same year that the second X-Files movie, I Want To Believe, came out). At the tail end of a cross-country road trip, organized around attending the Burning Man festival, I planned a night's stay at the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada (the desert ghost town just over the mountains from Area 51), located alongside the Extraterrestrial Highway - because how often am I going to be in Nevada?

It was a quaint, cozy little place, utterly steeped in alien lore. My traveling companion and I were invited to investigate the "Evidence Room" - a windowless storage closet stacked floor to ceiling with tapes and other media on the theme of UFOs and alien abductions and similar subjects. We grabbed a few - including some episodes of The X-Files (probably Duane Barry/Ascension), and took them back to our room for the night, where we settled in and watched Fire In The Sky. It had been several years since I'd last seen it then, too, and my overriding impression was just how stark and terrifying that climax was, knowing that I had first watched it while I was still just a child. I described it then - rather aptly - as "torture porn for the alien abduction generation".

But what is Fire In The Sky about? Well, to start with, it's based on a true story, accounted in the book The Walton Experience - although, like The Amityville Horror, there is speculation that the whole thing could have been fabricated for publicity. But, in my opinion, that shouldn't affect the viewer's suspension of disbelief. I don't believe in alien abductions the way I did when I was a kid (I take Scully's scientific approach these days, thinking them to be some combination of natural and psychological phenomena - when they're not complete hoaxes outright - and possibly involving bouts of sleep paralysis), but I still think it's a fascinating - and terrifying! - possibility to consider through fictional media.

In a sentence, Fire In The Sky is the story of Arizona lumberjack Travis Walton (portrayed in the movie by D.B. Sweeney)'s close encounter with a flying saucer one night in 1975. Heading home from work after dark, the six-man crew led by Travis' best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick, in a role that made Chris Carter sit up and take notice) witnesses what looks like a forest fire on the horizon. Except it's not. They go in to investigate, and Travis - being the most fearless one of the group - approaches on foot what appears to be a flying craft, and is struck by a beam of light. The rest of the crew rushes off in terror, and finds themselves the subject of a murder investigation when Travis goes missing.

A lot of the movie is dedicated to examining the truth of the logging crew's account of their close encounter. And while, as a viewer, you anticipate it being true, you naturally find your skeptical mind being engaged, trying to figure out the truth behind the real life events that inspired this fictional account. Expectedly, few believe the crew's wild story, even as it makes headlines in the local newspaper, and begins to draw curious tourists from afar. We see much of how the experience and disappearance of Travis affects his friend Mike's family, along with the rest of the crew and the whole town itself, but things start to get really exciting when Travis mysteriously returns, naked and afraid, one rainy night at a remote gas station.

At this point, it's only a matter of time before he begins to remember where he's been and what's happened to him, although it takes a few days for him to get there. The whole movie has been building up to this climax, where we witness the abduction from Travis' perspective, and I can tell you that it does not disappoint. Every alien abduction movie I've watched has lived or died by its abduction sequence, and every single one of them pales in comparison to this movie. I'm reluctant to go into too much detail, lest I spoil the experience of watching it for yourself, but I'm also dying to describe just what I love about it so much.

Spoiler Warning: The rest of this review contains spoilers to the exciting climax of this movie. In lieu of a proper conclusion, I invite you to just go and watch the movie yourself!

After the movie finished, I remarked to my viewing partner this watch that the thing that impressed me most about the alien abduction sequence was how organic, and gritty it looked and felt. Intelligent extraterrestrials are usually depicted as being technologically advanced - which makes perfect sense, if they're traveling long distances through space, and studying other planets' lifeforms. But while there's an eeriness to wandering down polished steel corridors, monitored by robotic and computerized devices years beyond what we're even able to conceive, Fire In The Sky opts for a more visceral body horror, by envisioning the alien spacecraft as an organic abode of pulsating membranes.

Travis wakes up in a womb-like enclosure - one of a long, cylindrical tunnel of Matrix-like pods. When he emerges, he must grapple with the unintuitive pull of non-static gravitational forces, as the craft presumably maneuvers through deep space. He encounters a ring of alien forms, with their trademark large, almond-shaped eyes, only to discover that they are just spacesuits (three years before Independence Day utilized a similar concept). The aliens themselves are not nearly so flawless - not so much idealized to the rigors of zero-gravity space travel as deformed by it, as if they were once planet-bound biological organisms just like us.

And then Travis is dragged to the operating table - not wheeled, but dragged, like a sack of meat - through corridors littered with the floating debris of previous victims. There, he is subjected to an otherworldly ordeal that resembles less a series of advanced medical experiments than the dark fantasies of a sadistic serial killer, utilizing not shiny, sterile utensils, but what look like the rusty implements of torture. It's almost as if Travis was not picked up by the upper-class, PhD-equivalent-bearing intergalactic academics, but a crew of backwoods trophy hunters tooling around the galaxy in their beat-up pickup truck. And it's much scarier as a result.

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