Netflix and Chill: Fire in the Sky
Film: "Fire in the Sky" (1993)
Director: Robert Lieberman Rating: ★★☆☆☆
In an effort to get beyond the wall of scrutiny that keeps me from a majority of films on Netflix, I decided to take a recommendation from a friend for this week’s review. This resulted in my viewing of the film adaptation of the real life story of Travis Walton, an Arizona logger who claims to have been abducted by aliens in 1975.
I don’t usually seek out alien or occult films. I also don’t put any weight into whether or not this particular story is true, or if the film is true to it. The only thing that really concerns me is what the film itself has to offer to its audience, which unfortunately in this case, only comes in a few interspersed moments. If you do happen to be intrigued for those earlier reasons, though, I suspect you’ll end up enjoying this film much more than I did.
“Fire in the Sky” begins with a quote from the Roman playwright Seneca, “Chance makes a plaything of a man’s life,” before opening to a silhouetted forest at night with an eerie fog hanging over it.
As the credits begin, a florescent light begins pulsing, more intensely with each flash. Suddenly, a truck reveals itself over a hill, barreling recklessly down a wooded road. Like much of this film, the opening exploits our expectations, playing with the possibility of something mystical before pulling a bait and switch and presenting a more recognizable reality.
The truck is later revealed to be containing five men of a logging crew. The men seem lost and bewildered as they explain to a detective how they witnessed the sixth man of their crew, Warton, being abducted by a strange, glowing object in the sky. An eerie and intriguing ambiguity hangs like a fog over the first moments of the film. Sadly, this is about as interesting as the film gets for the first hour and fifteen minutes of its hour and forty minute runtime.
Beyond this point, the film turns its focus toward the consequences of the crew’s story, as the men are ostracized by the just suspicions of their small town. While the community and family dynamics at play here can make for a decent film (see “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), “Fire in the Sky” is pervaded throughout by a certain campiness on par with most 90s, made-for-TV movies. Many thematic elements such as Christian morality, Navajo mysticism and UFO occultism are paid lip-service as if they were the original trilogy characters in “Rogue One,” awkwardly and without much consequence to what’s happening.
The characters are also flat, with not much defining them outside of their roles as the ‘free spirit’, the ‘family man’ or the ‘thug’, which makes for a less than compelling drama.
There’s only one scene in “Fire in the Sky” that saves this from being a one-star rating, and that’s in a flashback to an alien encounter, which serves as the film’s climax. Whereas the rest of the film relies on a thin layer of ambiguity (over the possibility that the crew killed Travis) in order to create tension, all of that uncertainty is wiped away in this penultimate moment; which is stripped down to the sheer horror of the ‘truth’.
Without giving too much away, the scene goes to David Cronenberg (“Scanners,” “The Fly”) levels with its body horror, and relies on the use of practical special effects, which hold up unseemly well for a science fiction film from 1993. To put it bluntly, this is such a terrifying depiction of an extraterrestrial encounter that it might even be more shocking to realize that you’re still watching the same film.
The good thing about this film is that is has a lot going for it. The unfortunate thing, however, is that nearly all of that is wrapped up in one scene, and no single moment, no matter how awesome or effective, can hope to make up for an entire movie.
This is especially true when considering the film’s ending, which seems to be completely tone-deaf to what has just taken place, and is probably why much of the film outside of the climactic scene seems to be ignored by the film’s cult following.
If you want my advice, just quit watching after this scene takes place and pretend that this was a less than good film that ended on a really high note.