Light bulb glitters through the trees that mark a country road. It creeps toward us, threatening to thunder over the horizon. The score builds threat. We don’t know what this sinister shape promises, but the wind howls dangerously. It breaks over the road and forms a shape: headlights. A rusting and battered pickup comes toward us, erratic in direction and skidding around like a fawn on ice.
One day later. Five men, salt-of-the-earth loggers from the gruff little community of Snowflake, Arizona, have come home with what appears to be a tall tale. Not only is their friend and colleague Travis Walton missing, but he was struck by a fireball that hung ominously in the sky. Thinking he was dead, they fled back to the city. No one believes them; what’s more, the word on federal law enforcement’s lips is “murder,” a conspiracy they’re all involved in. But their lie detectors are negative, and a few days later, Travis is found naked and sobbing for miles from where he disappeared.
These are reportedly true events that took place in Snowflake in November 1975. And just under two decades later, filmmaker Robert Lieberman began dramatizing it for an American audience entranced by stories of alien abductions from the mid-1940s. The result is 1993 Fire in the sky, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
There have been many movies that have tackled the haunted urban mythology of alien abductions. Recently Milla Jovovich starred in the rousing The fourth child, a formally daring but tonally messy film that infuses a fictional narrative with a dose of docurerealism. Alien Abduction, a cheap B-movie, twisted the subject with varying results. The vastness of the night is the best contemporary version, evoking the filmmaking sensibilities of the 50’s setting in favor of the nerve-racking, immersive atmosphere.
Its heyday was undeniably the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just before Fire in the sky in 1993 came a riveting piece of sci-fi horror that was also, ostensibly, inspired by real events. Community, released in 1989 and based on Whitley Strieber’s memoir (appropriately subtitled) A true story), starred Christopher Walken as a family man whose life is changed after an encounter in the remote wilderness. Like it Fire in the sky, it focuses more on the domestic impact of such an extraterrestrial event than exploitingly conjures up undeserved, visceral horror and to great effect.
The horror and tension are also some of the great strengths of Lieberman’s directing. Separated from a prologue that evokes the tropes of ‘fourth kind of cinema’ – missing time, an implausible encounter, ominous lights in the sky – this could well be a strong crime thriller in its own right.
Although we are always aware of the innocence of the men at the center of the mystery, their lives remain in balance. The arrogance of the police officer at the forefront of the investigation undermines the usual heroism of such a figure. James Garner’s quintessential no-nonsense sheriff archetype has a criminal record that predates him, but we still sympathize with his frustrations because the kidnapping story is mind-boggling.
Fire in the sky also stands as a riveting take on ’70s, cornfed America in decline from a promised idyll. Snowflake is the epitome of a run-down industrial town: a place where fathers teach their sons a unique trade – in this case logging – to support the local economic lifeline. It is a vacuum that few can escape. In that sense, it shares surprising properties with: The last photo show, like the portrait of a promise that is falling apart. The men in question aren’t just wafer-thin devices. They are full, with dilemmas and flaws; they have mortgages on the line and children to feed.
But then, of course, there’s the series that centrally tells the harrowing kidnapping of Travis. Again, most of the familiar tropes are at play: he wakes up after a period of stillness and emerges from a womb-like, organic capsule, floating in a vein-like gravity-free cavern. The production design is immensely unique, resembling a breathing, pulsating cavern, intertwined with a circulatory system of countless, eerie halls and corridors. Everything is covered in goo, and Travis stumbles across dissected bodies and spacesuits, whose helmet evokes the classic”gray alien” design, with large, black almond-like eyes.
It’s when they finally catch him and drag him to the operating table that the visceral gore factor kicks in tenfold. It’s better experienced than described, but the scene, scored by the ominous, mechanical whirling of medical instruments and Travis’ muffled wails, is deeply disturbing.
Let’s be honest. Despite the lie detectors and enduring mythos, it’s more than likely that the Walton encounter was a hoax or the result of something more explicable. Nevertheless, Fire in the sky remains a great piece of science fiction.