“Fire in the Sky”

Nigel Watson
Magonia 46, June 1993.

Aduction stories are not new to the cinema, indeed many SF films of the 1950s anticipated (helped create?) the obsessions that dominated the minds of ufologists since the 1980s. What makes Fire In The Sky different is that it takes UFOs seriously. Rather than use them as an excuse to wonder at the possibilities of life elsewhere, or reflect the paranoid concerns of Soviet invasion, atomic warfare, the progress of science, etc, Fire In The Sky plays an apparently straight bat.

Travis Walton and his fellow loggers are shown as ordinary blue-collar workers, and unlike the characters in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind they do not have any form of psychic union with the aliens, nor do they start wondering about the marvels of the universe. Though, for other reasons, mainly terrestrial, they are changed by their brush with the unknown.

Significantly, Travis (D.B.Sweeney) is revealed to be a carefree, dreamer. In contrast, his best friend and leader of the logging team, Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), has financial problems and a rocky marriage. Completing their contract means more to him than it does to Travis.
Travis Walton
As they travel to work their pick-up truck is a noisy technological invader of the natural world. The silence of the forest is filled with the noise of their transistor radio, their constant bickering, and by their lethal chainsaws. In particular, there is an ongoing feud between Allan Dallis (Craig Sheffer) and Travis, which culminates in them threatening each other with their chainsaws.

Earlier we are shown Travis trying to persuade Mike to join him in setting up a motorcycle business. On a crumpled piece of paper his dreams are depicted as the ‘MT Motor Shop’ with a picture of a motorbike – he makes a joke that MT stands for ‘empty’ revealing that he doesn’t have a great deal of confidence in this capitalistic vision. Mike, understandably, isn’t too keen on this idea.

When the shocked loggers, minus Travis, return to the town of Snowflake, they tell the police about their UFO encounter. Only Travis was foolhardy enough to run towards the UFO, the others wisely drove away in their pick-up truck. They are so scared that only Mike has the courage to drive back to see what has happened to Travis, but can’t find him.

The next day there is a massive police hunt The loggers take the sceptical police Lt. Frank Watters (James Garner) to where they saw Travis zapped by a beam of light from the UFO. They assumed that Travis was either killed or knocked unconscious by the beam. The UFO is shown as something like an upside-down volcano and has a passing resemblance to the spaceship in It Came From Outer Space. Although they state that there are traces on the ground nothing can be found, indeed no one is certain about the exact position of the encounter (shades of many real-life cases!).

On 12 March 1993, Philip Klass had a chance to voice his scepticism about the physical reality of the incident. On the Larry King TV show he thought the men had been lying, because, he said: “I’m afraid we have to say that on the basis of the physical evidence – physical evidence that should have been there but was not. Now you heard Travis and Mike Rogers claim that this beam from the UFO was like a grenade exploding, fire, flame… but Travis was knocked 10 feet back. And in his book, he [Travis] claims he hit his shoulders against the rocks. Now shortly after Travis reappeared, he was given a physical examination by two medical doctors in Phoenix… Dr. Kandell and Dr. Saults. They found no bruise marks. They found no burn marks. They found no physical damage. The only thing was like a needle mark in his elbow. So there was no physical evidence.” Travis laughed at this statement saying that Klass didn’t understand the nature of the evidence. In the film, Travis is shown quite badly scratched and bruised by his experience.

The police, and members of their small community think they are either “murderers or liars”. The constant personal disputes between Dallis and Travis, makes Dallis the prime suspect, but he is a gambling drifter who doesn’t care about what others think. It is Mike who is the most sensitive about local public opinion.

The morning after the UFO encounter Mike and his fellow loggers find themselves the centre of media and public attention. A creepy ufologist introduces himself as being from a group called A.F.A.R., and tells him to contact him if he wants to talk about the case. Mike’s wife is particularly upset by all this attention, and Mike becomes totally estranged from her. In addition, the logging contract is cancelled so his financial problems come to a head.

There are two major points where their story is directly challenged. The first, happens at a public meeting to discuss the affair. After initial scepticism Mike makes an impassioned speech that basically states that he and and his mates are telling the truth. Significantly, this speech is made before a stained glass window, which an earlier scene showed was of Christ being hit by a beam of celestial light. This discreetly (!) indicates that Travis can be regarded as a contemporary Christ-like martyr figure, and that his fellow loggers are reluctant disciples who have witnessed a miracle.

Secondly, there is a scene where the loggers each take a lie detector test. The examiner says that “charts don’t lie” but the results of these tests are inconclusive. The police want to take another set of tests but the men don’t want to go through this process again.

Besides being a good portrayal of the social and psychological reactions to a UFO case, the film is probably most important for its depiction of an abduction experience. Here we see (in flashback) Travis waking in a cocoon-like pod that is full of slime. When he breaks through the pod’s membrane he floats to the centre of a cylindrical cave-like room. He grabs a floating cable/rope giving the appearance of a newborn baby attached to its umbilical cord. These images of birth are then under-cut by an image of death – he floats back to a pod which contains a half-eaten human corpse. Since the sides of the room are full of pods, is this a food store-room for the aliens? This reminds us of the carnivorous habits of the aliens in the T.V. series V.

Escaping from the room he enters a brightly lit area full of floating comatose aliens that look distinctly like those described by Whitley Strieber. As he gets closer to them he realises that these are just space suits. Not only are we meant to remember the (in)famous cover of Communion and Transformation but the empty suits are also reminiscent of the suits in 2001 (in the scene where the two remaining astronauts get into a small `pod’ spaceship to get out of ear-shot of the computer HAL).

The aliens that use these space suits are spindly bodied, with skin the texture and colour of a potato; they have a bump where their nose should be. Surprised by the appearance of one of these beings Travis greets it with a kick to the head. He runs down corridors scattered with the debris of former human abductees (e.g. a pair of abandoned spectacles), but is quickly captured by two beings who unceremoniously drag him to the obligatory operating table.

The examination scene is the film’s centrepiece. In a surreal nightmare fashion Travis is stripped naked and bound to the table with sheets of membrane-like material. After being smothered in this, the beings cut a hole for his mouth and his right eye. A glob of black goo is stuck in his mouth quickly followed by a flexible metal tube. A pin is snapped into the side of his neck, and it is connected to a cable. The ultimate in terror is a spherical object with nasty looking drills attached to it that descends from the ceiling. This seems to be aimed at his eyes but it drills near his eye sockets instead. Interestingly the interior of the craft seems almost biological – as in the film Alien – but the surgical instruments are very much like solid metallic terrestrial surgical/torture implements.

The purpose of this examination is never explained. The first flashbacks occur when Travis is taken to hospital, and the director deliberately parallels the experience of going to hospital with having an abduction experience.

When he is found, five days after his encounter, he is semi-conscious, crouching naked next to an ice-machine, reminiscent of the arrival of people/androids from the future in the Terminator movies. Smears of rain on a pane of glass remind of his attempts at breaking-out of the pod on board the UFO. He is terrified and withdraws from Mike who has come to collect him. The ufologist from A.F.A.R says he knows exactly what needs to be done, which means that he wants to get a urine sample! Apparently, the role of the ufologist was added to give a ‘David Lynch’ feel to the film but it seems more likely those involved are really taking the urine out of ufologists. This is typical of the media, which uses the cases ufologists make and help keep famous, engages their support, and then makes fun of them!

After all the fuss, and Travis’ safe reappearance Lt. Frank Waiters leaves the town with this mystery unsolved even though he strongly considers the case to be a hoax. In contrast, the local sheriff thinks there is something to Travis’ story

This is a story that speaks to human character and behaviour – about our inclination to presume the worst in someone before considering ideas that challenge our own scepticism

An epilogue is tacked onto the film, that tells us the state of affairs 20 years after the event. Now Travis has a smart blue estate car, has married his girlfriend, obviously happy with his life. Suddenly he stops his car near a billboard that states AN AMERICAN LEGEND beneath the picture of a motorbike. Travis’ MT dream has come into reality in a far different manner than he expected, but he is obviously an American Legend. On a whim he drives to his old friend, Mike, who has left his wife and is now living as a recluse in a lonely woodland cabin. They talk about the event that has given both of them nightmares. To comfort his friend, Travis assures him that “They won’t be back. I don’t think they liked me.” On this note Mike says he will return to civilisation and communal/personal fears and re-build his life.

We have already seen that Klass has contested the physical reality of this encounter. We must also be wary of the ‘facts’ shown in the film even though it boasts it is “based on a true story”, and all the major percipients were consulted. Tracey Tormé, the film’s sceen writer and co-producer, confirmed that rather than depict what Travis reported, they had to conform to Paramount’s opinion that what he saw might be interesting to a handful of ufologists but they had to do something different from the Communion film and the Intruders TV mini-series. Since the Travis case is different from many of Hopkin’s modern-day cases. Tormé certainly doesn’t think it was a ‘real’ abduction incident. He explained: “I think it is more of a hit-and-run accident.. at doesn’t fit any of the other patterns as in the cases that were explored in Intruders. So my personal feeling is that it was really a one of a kind that doesn’t fall into the parameters of Budd Hopkina’ type abduction cases…”

This reveals the absolute faith in Hopkins’ scary abduction stories, so much so that if a case doesn’t conform to his data base it can’t be true! Tormé also acknowledges that most of the aspects of Travis’ experience as shown in the film are untrue or exaggerated or don’t fit Hopkins’ data: “When he [Travis] awakened [in the UFO] he was not paralyzed. He was not naked. He was not being experimented on medically. He has not had any experiences since then. He didn’t seem to have any [experiences] in childhood. He didn’t come back with a lot of scars or anything. So I think all those things break the mould and make this case unique.”

The film neatly uses ideas from contemporary ufology and contemporary films. Its first portrayal of Frank Watters shows him about to encounter what we are led to believe is a UFO, which is a copy from Close Encounters… where Roy Neary is shown in his pick-up truck being followed by a “UFO”. In the diner/saloon where the witnesses tell their story to Watters, the camera pans down from a stuffed owl which implies knowledge of Strieber’s `screen memories’ of owls (see Communion, Arrow Books, 1988. p30-31). This will dissatisfy those who want a pure documentary about a real UFO encounter, and it will disappoint those who want the mythologic al hyperbole and action of Close Encounters… but it does aptly meet the intentions of its producer, Joe Wizan:

“This is a story that speaks to human character and behaviour – about our inclination to presume the worst in someone before considering ideas that challenge our own skepticism.” On that basis Fire In The Sky works magnificently and it provides powerful images of abduction, imprisonment, torture/examination,, birth, death, horror, nightmare, mental breakdown and As I have already noted in the context of Martin Kottmeyer’s analysis of Invasion of the Star Creatures (in Talking Pictures No. 7, April/May 1993), ‘Rather than being a source of real knowledge the media makes us scared of terrible things, people and events that might be out there, or even worse, within ourselves’. With the success of Fire In The Sky at the U.S. box office we can expect it to help fuel and justify abduction experiences, and we can expect such films and TV shows to help shape such accounts in their image.