Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Because Not All Abductions Are As Fun as XTRO...

Dear extraterrestrial visitors,
If you ever decide to stop by this little blue planet, consider planning your vacation in advance. Yes, there are indeed some beautiful trees to be found in Arizona (who knew?) and some friendly mid-1990s character actors willing to embrace folksy accents, but there’s also exciting places like Dollywood, Times Square, Niagra Falls, Machu Picchu, and a lot of other attractions that may be more rewarding than drilling holes into young men’s flesh.
But hey, we all have our travel hobbies (mine include wax museums, so what do I know?) and so perhaps I’m trying to make the alien cruisers in 1993’s Fire In the Sky something they are not. Have fun. Wear sunscreen. And take lots of pictures.
Quick Plot:
A manly group of lumberjacks enter a folksy Arizona bar in near shell shock. Led by a strangely scruffy Robert Patrick as Mike, the men tentatively agree to stick to their story and call in the police (quickly aided by famed Montana detective James Garner) to explain some very mysterious happenings.

We learn in flashback that the gang was finishing up a day’s work tearing down a forest when, upon driving home after sunset, an incredible red light filled the horizon. Big dreamer Travis (D.B. Sweeney, forever he of ‘toepick’ Cutting Edge fame and one of my favorite drunken celebrity encounters in the subway ever) insisted on investigating, wandering under a gigantic space ship before being stuck by its beam. 

With the rest of the fellas squealing like thirteen year old girls learning that Robert Pattinson is really a slug in a man’s suit, Mike speeds away and leaves his best friend/fiance of his kid sister to his mysterious fate.

Upon returning to the clearing, Mike can find no sign of Travis. A search party is mounted, failing to come up with any evidence of the young man’s whereabouts. In the small town, people talk. Well, not quite. They just constantly stop what they’re doing any time the suspicious loggers enter a public place so as to ogle and whisper inaudibly in judgement.
Fire in the Sky is an interesting, if strangely organized thriller that doesn’t quite know where the best part of its story is located. As Mike, Robert Patrick is sympathetic and believable, but we as the audience just aren’t that interested in the financial and marital problems brought on by his insistence to tell the truth. Similarly, Craig Sheffer’s moody Dallis never makes much sense in the big picture: Garner and the rest of the police force want to make the ex-con a prime suspect, but we as the audience already know he (and all the men) are innocent. Why waste time developing a subplot that simply won’t go anywhere?

The answer, of course, stems from those five little words that tend to mildly doom any promising premise: Based. On. A. True. Story. 
Travis Walton did and does exist, and Fire In the Sky is supposedly a fairly accurate story to his tellings of what happened that day in 1975. The grabby tagline is fine for unsettling a certain audience, but the film unfortunately falls into a bland formula that insists on documenting the police investigation and relationship drama that came from the event. 
Of course, most people that celebrate this movie focus on the third act, where (mild spoiler, but not really) the newly recovered Travis remembers just what happened to him  in those five mysterious days. For this reason alone, Fire In the Sky remains a powerful, creepy little film that finds new ways to portray a not-so-friendly (though never quite defined) race of extraterrestrials. It doesn’t completely redeem what comes before (and after) it, but this sequence is truly terrifying and, whether ‘true’ or not, sends satisfying chills down any viewer’s spine.

High Points
Right from the opening, we totally believe Robert Patrick to be everything the town sheriff says: a good straight man with a clear record to his name. Though I kind of hated where his character ended up (more due to scripting than performance), I’d say Patrick  grounds the film with believable sympathy

You won’t find a review of this film that doesn’t compliment the actual spaceship sequence because darnit, it’s truly chilling
Low Points
Of all the ways to end the film, was a quicky epilogue that jarringly swerves away from such a powerful and haunting sequence really the right way to go?
Lessons Learned
Being abducted and probed by gooey Baby Oopsie-Daisy-like aliens will not harm one’s fertility

One can grow a mean collection of facial hair in 2 1/2 years
Unfriendly ETs have diverse film tastes, with interior design styles inspired by both Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and A Clockwork Orange

I was a little let down by Fire In the Sky, but that stems more from the fact that it’s so well-made and acted and yet weirdly misguided in its plot structure. Ultimately, the film didn’t win me over yet at the same time, I recommend a rental, particularly if you enjoy alien-centric thrillers. X-Files fans should easily dig this, and even straighter horror viewers will find some neat stuff.

Also, for whatever reason of contagious movie thinkery, Fire In the Sky is a hot pick for the week here in the blogosphere. For more talk about D.B. Sweeney's shivering and true story tinkering, head to From Midnight, With Love, where TheMike himself (but not as played by Robert Patrick) does some reviewing, and The Horror Digest, where Andre digs into the real stories of FItS and other such films so proudly wearing their genuine status.


  1. I actually saw this film in theaters and enjoyed it enough at the time. I rewatched it again about five years ago and still enjoyed it, but it does have its flaws.

    One sequence that is super creepy is when dude is under the kitchen table where Aunt Jemima drips a load on his face, sending his memories spiraling back to a specific moment on the ship.

  2. Very true Matt. I guess had the film focused on those kinds of moments and that storyline in general, it would have been absolutely terrifying.

  3. The idea of seeing this movie creeped me out as a kid. It was during all the alien hoopla and The X-Files was making serious waves and that 'true story' slant shook me.

    I did finally see it as an adult on cable and found it although choppy in plot, a really well acted film and concur with the creepiness of the spaceship scene sequence.

  4. All I really remember is indeed that third act that recounts what Travis remembers happening in the company of the aliens. It really scared me as a kid. I haven't been back to it since, but I imagine it would still have the skin-crawling effect I remember.

    Also, I always recall the aliens' obsession with latex plastic and metal instruments whenever I'm at the dentist. Drill, alien, drill!

  5. The abduction stuff totally holds up today as being extremely creepy. No matter how much time has passed, being poked and wrapped in latex is still disturbing. But damnit Zed, now I'll totally be thinking about this scene at my next dentist trip! As if it's not scary enough!

  6. Funny that you posted about this. I rented this not that long ago after my friend kept telling me how it scared the crap out of him as a kid.

    I was kind of let down though. I found the pacing dreadfully slow and while that final act is creepy, it wasn't worth sitting through the build up. Give me the X-Files "Black Oil" episodes over this any day.

  7. Matt: There was indeed a weird viral trend of Fire In the Sky going around in the last month. I agree that the film is too plagued by standard TV plotting to really work, though that abduction scene is quite a doozy. Maybe one more rewrite or director's to cut out the blah detective angle and the story could have really flown.