Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.
I like science fiction as much or more than the next guy, but I put the emphasis heavily on the word “fiction.” I also happen to be a science geek, and a great deal of my pleasure reading (when I have time for it) is in different science fields. In my movies, though, I’m a lot less stringent. If things happen that don’t comport with the known physical laws of the universe, I’m not that put out. Fire in the Sky requires a different sort of willing suspension of disbelief, though. Taken at face value, this is the true account of Travis Walton (played in the film by D.B. Sweeney) and his alien abduction.
So let’s go there for a minute. Our universe is an awfully big place and I think it’s unbelievably likely that life has evolved on other planets. On some of those planets, I’m betting there’s sentient life. However, the distances involved in moving from solar system to solar system are so great that I think it’s unlikely that we’ll ever encounter intelligent aliens, and I doubt very seriously that those aliens have been here abducting people, making crop circles, or performing medical experiments on our livestock.
So, going in, I’m looking at this as entertainment, not as evidence of extraterrestrial visitors. I can’t know for certain what the real Travis Walton went through or what he really experienced. I can say, though, that I think a bad batch of magic mushrooms or moonshine is a much more likely candidate.
Anyway, Fire in the Sky starts in medias res with the abduction having already taken place. There are five witnesses, all a part of the same crew working on a nearby mountain clearing brush for a government contract. These men are Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), the team leader and Travis’s best friend; Allan Dallis (Craig Sheffer), a drifter who has a feud working with Travis; and three relatively interchangeable guys named Dave Whitlock (Peter Berg), Greg Hayes (Henry Thomas), and Bobby Cogdill (Bradley Gregg). The five have shown up at a local bar minus Travis and have called in the police to tell their story.
The police, represented mainly by local lawman Blake Davis (Noble Willingham) is unprepared for such a story, so he calls in a big-city detective named Frank Watters (James Garner). Of course, no one believes the story. They’re convinced that one or all of the five men killed Travis and are conspiring to keep this a secret. Most of the first hour or so of the film consists of this and the flashback to the abduction. Since that’s more interesting than flying accusations and lie detector tests, we should probably discuss it.
I kind of knew this was going to be trouble when we’re first introduced to Travis. It’s probably not too surprising that Travis Walton is depicted as something of a local hero, since the movie is roughly based on Walton’s own book account of his abduction. Here, when we first see him, he’s riding a motorcycle up on the sidewalk of the town, driving past a diner to grab a bag full of donuts from the counter girl, whose heart undoubtedly skips a beat when Travis almost touches her. He tells Mike that he’s got the idea of them opening a motorcycle dealership, complete with a picture that looks like he drew it in sophomore year Spanish class. And then, since Travis is dating Mike’s sister, Travis climbs up the side of the house to say good morning to his lady love. It’s a bit much to take.
Once at the job site, we get a little back and forth between Travis and Dallis, and then when they go home, the abduction happens. It happens specifically because Travis gets out of the truck and walks toward the giant hovering spacecraft, which knocks him out with a beam of light and then presumably picks him up. We’re not sure how this happens, because the other five drive off without him. Travis is missing for five days, and then shows up naked by a pay phone.
The most interesting and effective part of the film comes in the third act when Travis has a flashback to his actual abduction, or at least to what happened while he was abducted. There are some interesting moments of weightlessness, discovery of some desiccated bodies, and then (of course) various medical experiments and probings. Eventually, we come back and get a little “two years later” wrap-up. These scenes are effective because they’re actually pretty scary and disturbing in the moment. It’s hard to get a good sense of what is going on because of the constant disorientation, and then the medical experimentation scenes are not quite graphic, but still pretty upsetting.
The big problem for me here is that I just don’t buy it, and I think that’s essential in liking the movie. Again, I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief within the context of a movie, but this one is asking me to do quite a bit more than that, and I’m unwilling. It also spends far too long dealing with the mysterious disappearance and with not much else happening. It’s too slow to get going, makes far too much of the feud between Travis and Dallis, especially since it comes to nothing.
Most of the third act up to the epilogue is good. The rest isn’t that entertaining.
Why to watch Fire in the Sky: The part aboard the alien spaceship is pretty scary.
Why not to watch: It’s an awful lot of hokum.