Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fire In The Sky

Fire In The Sky [1993] is one of those small, science fiction film diversions that remains a minor classic in the alien abduction film sub-genre. Robert Patrick is a big part of its success.

The film purports to be "based on a true story." You should always question the measures of truth and fiction ultimately in play within said end product. Battle: Los Angeles [2011] was based on true events too. But, of course, the last time we checked, an all out military/ alien ground war has yet to occur despite vivid depictions of an invasion in the film to the contrary, but that's entertainment. Fire In The Sky makes more of an effort to get things right, with its obvious application of artistic license, but it's more in keeping with reality.

Fire In The Sky partly centers on the 1975 abduction of Travis Walton, a logger, from the White Mountains of Northeastern Arizona. It's based on Walton's book The Walton Experience. The screenplay is based on that source material and written by Tracy Torme. Science fiction fans will recognize Torme from his scriptwriting credits on Star Trek: The Next Generation. His episodes include Season One's Haven, The Big Goodbye and one of the better entries in that season Conspiracy. He also wrote Season Two's The Schizoid Man. He also penned three installments of the impressive, but ephemeral HBO series Carnivale [2003]. Fire In The Sky is one of his finest moments.

Separate from the abduction component of Travis the film focuses on the aftermath of that abduction through the eyes of a primary second character, his best friend, Mike Rogers. Travis Walton is played by D.B. Sweeney who offers a solid, emotionally-troubled turn, and Mike Rogers is delivered with affecting, convincing sincerity by none other than Robert Patrick [The X-Files].

Mike Rogers is the focus for the first two-thirds of the film, while the final act is refocused on the returned Travis Walton. Sweeney presents Walton's experience of the hypothetical, grisly alien encounter. It is the re-enactment of those events that falls into question the most according to those who have documented the case for years. The studio plays fast and loose with that portion of the Walton account, but it certainly lends the film a rousing conclusion and one that genuinely feels foreign and alien to the audience. The sequence is successfully effective and affecting.

For me, the most stirring portion of Fire In The Sky is through the eyes of Robert Patrick as Rogers. It is through his reactions and the perceptions of him as a man by those around him from his small, close knit town that garners the most satisfying reaction from viewers. Rogers grounds the film and sells the account to an audience that invests itself emotionally.

Robert Patrick is magnificent as Rogers and captures the essence of a film that spends more time on the humanity of its Earthbound victim than it does on UFOs and aliens. Sweeney's character and the abduction informs the Rogers character and his emotional response, as well as the response of those around him, throughout the picture. Rogers is undeniably the heart of the film. In many ways there's an irony in his performance. Two years earlier Patrick delivered one of the steely-eyed, coldest turns in science fiction as a credible, unrelenting T-1000 in James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991].

I was always struck by that performance and Cameron's choice of Patrick as the anti-Arnold in size and stature. Patrick sells the T-1000 as a smaller, but more stealth, powerful and ferocious unit seeking to destroy Arnold's T-800, the sexy Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor and her son savior John Connor. Patrick was unstoppable in that role and as an unknown to me at the time, I fully accepted that Patrick was a terminating unit. It was an ice cold role, but delivered brilliantly and immortalized the character in science fiction legend. This role years earlier is why Patrick's role in yet another genre performance in Fire In The Sky is so fascinating and powerful. The character transformation and contrast is as staggering as the T-1000's ability to freely adapt from liquid metal to physical juggernaut. His work is truly remarkable here.

The actor has fostered a love affair within the genre. Beyond T2, Patrick fortified my desire to stay with The X-Files for Seasons Eight and Nine for his brilliant portrait of FBI Special Agent John Doggett. In fact, it was Patrick's role in the film, Fire In The Sky, that caught the eye of Chris Carter. I was not among those quick to discount those final seasons of The X-Files as a result of David Duchovny's departure. In fact, most of all, I was impressed with what Robert Patrick brought to the series. Those were large shoes left vacant by David Duchovny that Patrick had to fill. It was no small task and Patrick was clearly up to the required task. Harsh criticisms are often levied on those final two seasons of The X-Files. Well, say what you will, it wasn't for lack of talent. Fans simply seemed less inclined to buy the Scully and Doggett combo as much as they were sold and invested in the Mulder and Scully relationship they had grown to love for seven years. As it turned out, Patrick was a terrific casting choice for that series and he delivered.

Robert Patrick delivered a small, but mighty and meaty turn in Stargate Atlantis' premiere episode Rising. It was the series opener to the second incarnation of that remarkable franchise. Patrick was there to witness Stargate Atlantis rising and see Stargate SG-1 evolve into an exciting, more globally-appealing creation. His role is ephemeral, but his presence as an actor is always immense and lends weight to the proceedings of the very cinematic opener. In fact, ironically, in Rising, Patrick would finally be the recipient of an alien abduction himself, as victimized by The Wraith, years after the visitors arrived in Fire In The Sky and first missed their chance.

Fortunately director Robert Lieberman cast Patrick in one of the two leads for Fire In The Sky as Rogers and allowed him to show us the fiery intensity behind those eyes that Patrick hadn't the chance to unleash until this film. He's a big reason Fire In The Sky succeeds, but there is more.

The ensemble cast features Peter Berg [an impressive career in his own right including Late For Dinner and A Midnight Clear], Henry Thomas [E.T.] in an oddly fitting role and Craig Sheffer [A River Runs Through It] who really flesh out the kind of small town vibe populated by American characters that make this film worth of your time. It's rare to see a science fiction film reveal itself without the prerequisite big effects and big aliens. Fire In The Sky breathes before the big reveals and those are impressive. It's a treasure really.

By the time we do get to that third act the creators let us have it between the eyes with some astounding effects work [Industrial Light and Magic] that still looks staggeringly real nearly twenty years later. The camera work and editing of those effects is stunning. It could be used in film class dissections. That intimate work coupled with Mark Isham's score makes for a truly unnerving experience. The director takes us into the world of Travis Walton and his abduction experience aboard an alien ship. The juxtaposition of Walton's experience through the corridors of a hospital upon his return and images aboard an alien vessel are of nightmarish proportions.

The title of the film is equally appropriate as the film certainly mixes reality with fiction to a degree. How often do events of this magnitude simply get explained as something natural. UFO? I'm sure it was just a flash of light or a fire in the sky. The truth is always explicable.

Susan Granger of American Movie Classics wrote "the last 10 minutes are so terrifying you'll be gripping the edge of your seat." I wouldn't necessarily go that far, unless of course you're twelve then she'd be right. A midnight viewing and the lights out will certainly lend the necessary atmosphere. There were a number of critics who felt the film was uncertain of its genre identity or that scripting by Torme was weak. To the contrary, I felt Fire In The Sky was unafraid to tell its story based overall on the events depicted by Walton and the dialogue was fairly natural to small town, rural America. I thought the film made efforts to be true to its source material and location and for that it should be applauded never sacrificing reality for spectacle. The depiction of the alien imprisonment is certainly the one area that falls into question, but without artistic license would we have a film to enthrall the imagination of filmgoers? Roger Ebert wrote, "The scenes inside the craft are really very good. They convincingly depict a reality I haven't seen in the movies before, and for once I did believe that I was seeing something truly alien, and not just a set decorator's daydreams." It's a valid point and seeing it today won't change that opinion. This is a gifted effort.

The picture certainly can't compete with the speed and energy of today's big budget science fiction vehicles, but as small films go Fire In The Sky is an entertaining little gem and much better for it. It's the kind of science fiction story you miss seeing more of today. Seeing a character-driven picture is always a pleasure and Fire In Sky is notable if just for the performances between the group of loggers and the investigators, one played by James Garner. The film is missing some elements to make the story more compelling in general. But as a microscope on human behavior and what people are willing to believe of one another without all of the facts is a big part of the picture's strength.

There aren't many surprises here. This is just a fine little science fiction film and one that got by me when it first arrived in cinemas. The abduction happened all too quickly I suppose. I purchased an imported Canadian copy on the cheap and while it's not Alien or The Abyss, I did enjoy the small town American charm of the film's setting. Much has been talked of the innacuracy of the film and its sensationalized depiction of the events surrounding Travis Walton's alien isolation. Maybe the use of his name is about the only speck of truth to the tale, but as entertainment goes, Fire In The Sky is cinematic X-Files-like fare. That's never a bad thing.

Fire In The Sky fails at giving us a greater understanding of the actual alien abduction surrounding Travis Walton. You'll be as perplexed by the end as you were when it began. Where the film succeeds is its ability to depict human nature and how it's pressed under the weight and pressure of extraordinary events. People's behavior and a focus on human nature is always more fascinating than an alien microscope or alleged experimentation. Like District 9 [2009], and the tragic story of dear Wikus van de Merwe, it's the potential for human wreckage by inexplicable events that makes Fire In The Sky a fascinating little tale.
Fire In The Sky: B+

Extract from Starlog #189: This extract is actually an updated component of the entry. I recently read a unique segment called True Documentarian by Kim Howard Johnson. The writer's information was fascinating as it offers insights by director Robert Lieberman that evaded me when I initially wrote this entry.

Lieberman on the film: "This is much more science fact than science fiction. Fire In The Sky is is based on a true experience. There were seven eyewitnesses, who all passed lie detector tests independently of each other." Lieberman was attempting to fuse his film with a documentary style. "No one had ever approached this sort of material on a very real, Earth-based level. The only thing close to it was Communion, and I don't believe that film really did it justice-it dwindled down to a silly fantasy. This one doesn't." He also pointed to Tracy Torme as a "true believer" too.

Lieberman on Travis Walton: "Travis was skeptical, but once Tracy had won his confidence, Travis was very enthusiastic in cooperating on the film's making. These are not timid people unwilling to discuss the experience. They're very detailed and verbal in their descriptions, which makes it all the more believable."

Lieberman on Robert Patrick: "He believed in this project so much that on his drive from New York to the interview with me, he drove through Snowflake, Arizona, went to a phone booth, looked up Travis Walton, and drove by his house. He didn't stop-Travis was mowing the lawn with his kids. ... He just observed him." Lieberman loved the "vulnerability" of Patrick. "Robert was unbelievably personable and lovely, and when he did his audition, it was heart-wrenching and brilliant." Lieberman felt eventhough "he has never really had to carry a big movie like this one" he was up to the task.

Lieberman on the final minutes of the film: "If the film works, the last few moments will bring a tear to your eye. It has a tremendous range of human feeling."

Coming Soon: The Abduction Sequence - Frame by Frame.

Actor footnote: Robert Patrick [1958-present]. American. Patrick has had a very impressive career. Here's a sample. Die Hard 2 [1990]/ Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991]/ Fire In The Sky [1993]/ Copland [1997]/ The Faculty [1998]/ From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money [1999]/ Ladder 49 [2004]/ Walk The Line [2005]/ Flags Of Our Fathers [2006]/ We Are Marshall [2006]/ Alien Trespass [2009]/ The Men Who Stare At Goats [2009]. His television work includes the obvious powerhouse role of Agent John Doggett on The X-Files [2000-2002], three episodes of The Sopranos [2000] in The Happy Wanderer, Bust Out and Funhouse from Season Two, a guest spot on Stargate Atlantis for the premiere Rising [2004], an appearance on Lost in Outlaws [2005] from Season One, and a recurring role on The Unit [2006-2009]. This is just to name a few.

Here's just one of his terrific moments in Fire In The Sky.


PDXWiz said...

Great review, SFF! What a strong cast this film has. Obviously, they spent the money on a great cast and not on effects. I hadn't realized James Garner was here, an actor not typically known for his science fiction (the main role in that genre was in Space Cowboys). Garner is known for his comedy and action and war and western films, but it was his detective role of Jim Rockford that probably helped him out here.

I've been very curious about this film; I remember the splash after the real incident supposedly took place. I've also realized, from your list of Robert Patrick's roles, I've never seen him in anything! I must correct that in the near future!

Gordon Long

SFF said...

Thanks Gordon.

Yes, Jim Rockford. The show played endlessly in my home as a kid. My father enjoyed it.

It had one of the most insanely catchy theme songs on the planet. I can still hum it decades later and I haven't heard it in years.

But James Garner was a wonderful actor. And though he is still with us I suspect he's semi-retired.

Patrick himself, like Garner, has done a load of interesting work.

All the best,

le0pard13 said...

I can't exactly put words why I haven't seen this film. Certainly, I'd heard of it, just never pulled the trigger. Your excellent review has convinced me I need to rectify this. And guess what? Netflix is streaming it! I'm definitely giving it a go, SFF. Thanks much for this, my friend.

le0pard13 said...

BTW, James Garner is one of my all-time favorite actors. And one of my most anticipated books this year is his upcoming memoir. It ought to be something!

SFF said...

Thanks L13 and thanks for the mention on the memoirs. I'd be interested.

He has a nice part in this film. He just adds a bit of thespian weight to the project, but look - Fire In The Sky is a solid litte film.

I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Cheers my friend

John Kenneth Muir said...


I was thrilled to see your coverage here of this underrated sci-fi gem. And you did it great justice with your review. Sure, Fire in the Sky is no big budget epic, but it's a good and powerful science fiction film with some very memorable characters and strong performances.

I also love that ending. still terrifies me to this day. I know it does not accurately reflect Travis Walton's "experience," but man is it persuasive as horror. I always think of it as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space. Seriously. The sequence on the alien ship here is almost a mini-movie in and of itself, and the set-decoration, production design and special effects are all extraordinary.

I think you are absolutely right in devoting much attention to Patrick's performance. He's the heart and soul of this movie. He carries it, when -- for long stretches -- Travis is off-screen, missing. Patrick just exudes decency, and does a great job creating this vulnerable, confused character. He's terrific here, just as you say.

The only part of the film that didn't work for me so much incolved James Garner. He's a great actor, obviously, but I felt his part of the movie -- "the investigation -- just didn't really lead anywhere. It didn't add anything substantive, it felt like. I would have been just as happy if the film had found another angle (instead of law enforcement investigation) to use as its sort of organizing principle.

Another excellent review, my friend...

Warmest Regards

SFF said...

Always a pleasure John.

Admittedly, it was your wonderful write-up [see John's archives] that inspired me to seek out the film and ultimately write about it, because writing is a sick... I mean passion. : ) I feel compelled to write about all that I see. That's another topic.

But John, thank you for your kindest thoughts on my own take.

I agree with you on every point. It's a powerful film with a truly terrifying bit of science fiction horror at the close of the film that reminisces of something like Pandorum. Right? Just truly disturbing. You can't help but wonder if stuff ike this didn't influence the look and tone of artists like Nine Inch Nails.

And on your final point, although Garner is a wonderful actor, you're right. His is a bt part kind of shoehorned into the film and never really amounts to much.

I know exactly what you mean. I can see the thnking behind it, with the lie detectors etc., but some other kind of organizing priniple to galvanize the theme might have been more effective.

That said, it's a terrific little human sci fi drama.

Thanks so much for your input my friend.

Unknown said...

Another comprehensive review, SFF! Wow. I haven't thought about this film in years! Talk about pulling one out of the archives.

Just curious but have you seen COMMUNION? It's an alien abduction story starring Christopher Walken and based on the famous Whitley Streiber book of the same name. The film has very odd beats but is fascinating nonetheless.

SFF said...

Ha. I have to laugh J.D.. We are often on the same wavelength I think more than you know.

I, like you, found Christopher Walken in Communion fascinating too.

I saw the film years ago. I may have seen it back when VHS ruled too.

Nevertheless, you have read my mind and my intention is to cover the Communion DVD right here at the site. It is forthcoming. When, I'm not sure, but it will happen.

Thanks for the visit as always my friend.

Unknown said...

That is awesome news, my friend! After reading your essay on FIRE IN THE SKY it immediately made me think of COMMUNION and how radically different it is from this film even though it deals with the same subject matter. I am very curious to read your thoughts on it.

Will said...

Robert Patrick is one of my top 5 favorite actors. For one, his portrayal of the T-1000 is monumental because, much like Arnold, he makes a one-dimensional character three dimensional through sheer force of will.

But this is one of Patrick's greatest roles and that scene in the church when he declares 'you got a problem, you say it to my face' is astounding.

Sadly, this was kind of his first chance post T2 to become a breakout star but no one saw this movie :( He was awesome.

His best performance of all-time is the X-Files episode 'Release' in which he solves the murder of his son. The ending, co-starring his real life wife, is so immensely heart wrenching that if you don't cry you don't have a heart in your body.

Great review as always.

SFF said...

Hello Will.

Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. You and I certainly agree on a great deal when it comes to science fiction. We are often on the same page much more than not.

Boy Robert Patrick is something else in this isn't he? I can see why he' a favorite. I loved him on The X-Files? Are you still doing that website by the way?

I've loved him in a lot I've seen. I'm really curious about his work in The Unit and that show.
Have you any thoughts on it?

I agree. That's why I included the scene here. It's extremely powerful. I loved your point about Patrick making a one-dimensional character a multi-dimensional character through will. Great point!!!

Can't wait to revisit those X-FIles. I just finished watching Season One. I've been working on an entry for the season as a whole.

Cheers my friend

Sean Gill said...

A great writeup! I haven't seen this film since whenever it made it's VHS debut, but I remember it freaking me out quite profoundly. Well said re: Robert Patrick, he's really one of my favorites.

SFF said...

Thanks so much Sean for taking time out to say so.

Yes, Patrick is a quality act. He elevates anything he's involved with. In fact, when you think about it, the final two seasons of The X-Files could have been a mitigated disaster were it not for Patrick stepping in and bring the level of quality to the show it needed to sustain its run.

All the best