THIS JUSTIN: The True Terror Of FIRE IN THE SKY

If you’ve ever spoken with me on horror films for longer than, say, five minutes, you know that one of my all-time movies that terrify me is Robert Lieberman’s 1993, uh, science fiction biopic drama (Wikipedia’s words, not mine) Fire In The Sky. We did an episode of Horror Business with the amazing and wonderful Final Girls a few years back on the movie as a part of a double feature on alien abduction films. Fire In The Sky is a loose (and I mean loose) retelling of the 1975 alien abduction claim by Travis Walton, a logger in northern Arizona who says he was kidnapped by aliens on his way home from work one night, kept aboard a ship for five days, and then dropped off unceremoniously onto a highway in rural Arizona where he recounted a spectacular tale of Nordic aliens, your classic “gray” aliens, being allowed to fly a spaceship and what have you. The actual account is like a cosmic version of going to hang out with someone and interacting first with their weird roommates before they themselves take you for a drive in their new car. Fire In The Sky, however, rather than a spectacularly mundane un-story, is arguably the gold standard by which alien abduction horror films are measured.

Usually, an assessment of the film states how the ending sequence – in which we see what happens to Travis on the ship – is the only scary part of an otherwise humdrum courtroom drama film featuring an angry Robert Patrick shouting about his crew. And, in all fairness, that end scene truly is something plucked from a nightmare. Roger Ebert famously wrote that these scenes “convincingly depict a reality I haven’t seen in movies before” and expressed frustration that the filmmakers didn’t lean more into what he saw as the strongest aspect of the film. The set design is unearthly and filthy, looking dusty and slimy at the same time. The aliens themselves look like aborted fetuses grown to full term outside the womb. And, creepiest of all, lying around the ship are artifacts suggesting the aliens are kidnapping and murdering children. We see sneakers floating in zero gravity, a pair of cracked glasses similarly suspended in a disgusting hallway, and at one point a vivisected human cadaver bundled away in one of the hundreds of beehive-cells lining the walls of the structure Travis wakes up in. The climax of this window into hell is when Travis is dragged screaming down a hallway, thrown onto an operating table, stripped to his underwear, encased in some kind of weird latex blanket, and given a Victorian-era looking endoscopy while having some brown gunk from god knows where shoved in his mouth. And then to top it all off they jam a needle in his eye. Wonderful, right?

Now, I’ve been told that the only reason this movie affects me so much is because it’s apparently based on a true story. But even if Walton was telling the truth, the story he recounts is worlds away from the real-world Tool music video that the film presents it as. Instead, I put to you that what punts this movie into full-blown nightmare territory isn’t just that ending scene aboard the ship. There are two key scenes in this movie that throw a low and slow pitch for the ending to wham out of the park: the scene where Travis is abducted, and a scene about two-thirds of the way into the movie when he’s returned.

As I mentioned before, this movie is often treated as a seventy minute set up for twenty minutes of frightening imagery. That’s selling the rest of this film short. Sure, there’s a ton of overly saccharine (and overly acted) drama where everyone is chewing the scenery to pieces. There are lots of depictions of Travis as a good ol’ boy with a heart of gold – although in full disclosure, I do think D.B. Sweeney really nails in this role, giving Travis both a sweet vulnerability as well as a believable denseness that would make a person get out of a truck and approach a fucking flying saucer – and lots of scenes of his friends and family suffering over not knowing where he is. To be fair, these are parts of the story that need to be told; there needs to be a human element to a story, or at least an attempt at one. But when it comes to horror, it’s that opening scene and middle scene that establish what we see at the end. I won’t talk anymore about the ending; I’ve done that enough and honestly if you’re reading this you’ve probably seen it already and know why it’s scary. It’s a scene that I imagine has terrified most people in my age bracket. So, no more about that ending.

Before I get into what makes those scenes so creepy, I want to talk about composer Mark Isham’s music for the film, as it’s a vital part in making the film a whole experience of terror. Isham’s theme for the instrumentation for this movie seems to be a blend of synthesizers, classic strings and woodwind, and indigenous sounding percussion, making for an odd and ominous mix of organic drums and instrumentation and cold, sterile synths. The opening score for the film begins lazy and lackadaisical, while also feeling sinister and foreboding: dragging stabs of strings over a soft wash of synth. This escalates into something that sounds like the musical equivalent of a chase scene, which is fitting as the film opens up with Travis’ friends racing back to town in a pickup truck after he’s abducted. It has a frantic, deadly feeling to it and draws you in, making you feel as anxious as the loggers must feel. Later, when we witness the actual abduction, as the loggers are driving past the field where the UFO is just… hanging out, the music of the radio begins to crackle and break up and is soon replaced by an ominous, rumbling bass synth, a deep and eerie howl that Isham revisits later in the film. Travis walking out under the UFO climaxes with a string effect that sounds like dozens of spiders scuttling down a wall. So much of the atmosphere of dread doesn’t just rely on visuals, it’s also from a score that sounds more like background noise to a nightmare.

The film opens with the loggers racing haphazardly down a backwoods dirt road after witnessing Travis’ abduction. They get back into town, are interrogated by some dickhead hard-ass cop who doesn’t believe them, and it’s that point we see what happened. They were driving home through the backwoods of Arizona when they notice an orange glow in the woods in the distance. This is when the radio starts acting up, and there’s this really delicious expression of fear that jumps from the faces of each of them as they soon understand that this is not something they can comprehend. The way the woods are lit in this scene is almost hellish, in that it looks like the earth itself is open and bathing the surrounding woods in this light. You just know, instinctively, that something bad is going to happen. Ominous, eerie, and alien in the truest sense of the word, this hints at the how the end of the movie will play out. There’s a wrongness there, something that really doesn’t sit well with the viewer. I know it’s a common phenomenon for us, the viewers, to think we would know what we would do in a fantastic situation: I’d shoot my friend if he were bit by a zombie, I wouldn’t go investigate that noise, I wouldn’t whatever. But I can’t think of any other movie (aside from Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon when he sees the footage from the captain’s log) where the characters display a more realistic reaction to a situation. To a man, every single one of them is telling Walton to get the fuck back in the truck.

And even though D.B. Sweeney’s naïvety is meant to make us feel bad for him, this fear from the other characters makes the scene that much spookier. This is how real people would act (even Walton, based on Sweeney’s depiction of him). The abduction itself, in which Sweeney is transfixed by a spotlight-like beam and then violently thrown backwards, is alarming, yes, but there’s a shot just before it happens where the camera slowly pans down on him from above as he’s bathed in that eerie crimson and blue light. I understand that the intent is to show where he was, in relation to the ship, and to capture the expression of fear and blossoming panic on his face before he decides to make a run for it. But when I watch it, it feels like we’re seeing the point of view of the creatures who are abducting him as they decide “alright let’s get this guy”. There’s something almost malevolent in waiting until right before he’s going to flee back to the truck to grab him.

After they flee the scene, the argument the other loggers have about going back to find him sounds like an argument people would genuinely have, heightening the surreal reality of the scene. Robert Patrick is clearly only going back out of a sense of duty, and understands that not only is his friend probably dead but he was killed by something the rest of them cannot begin to wrap their heads around.

And most importantly, he obviously does not want to go back there. I’ve read that one of the loggers involved in the case in real life is, to this very day, afraid to go into the woods at night. So, whether or not this event actually happened, and whether or not Walton was actually abducted by aliens, there is undeniably a shroud of palpable terror cast over this entire scene that makes it more than just another run of the mill intro to the rest of a movie. The characters are genuinely shaken by what they’ve just witnessed, and it’s contagious to the viewer.

Travis’ return to earth is equally unsettling. It begins with a late night call to one of his friends in the middle of a rainstorm (of course). The sequence has a strange, almost Hallmark Channel feeling where his friend, his fiancé, and his brother are driving around backwoods Arizona looking for the gas station he said he was at. But the eeriness quickly falls over everything when they find him naked and shivering, huddled up against an icebox in front of a gas station convenience store in the middle of the storm. And here we find what I personally think is the scariest scene in the film. He’s largely unresponsive to them, ignoring their questions about where he was and if he’s okay, and pantomiming for a glass of water. His girlfriend goes to put a comforting hand on his back, which we see is covered with bruises and cuts. Travis recoils instinctually. She tries again, laying both hands on him. He again recoils and begins screaming like a trapped animal. It’s so cutting and upsetting to listen to. When we later see what happened to him, this scene only becomes more terrifying because it’s evocative of what happened off-screen.

That’s the image that’s stuck with me, because we’re left to imagine what happened to him that made him that way. Yes, the ending is fucking nightmare fuel, but Travis cowering and howling in fear is what keeps me awake at night and has kept this film stuck in my brain for the past 25-plus years. It’s natural human empathy to feel concern and alarm at the sight of another human being in distress. But there’s something more there, something deeply animalistic. The idea that “here is someone who believes they are in danger, and that means that I myself could be in danger as well.” Like a horse smelling smoke and knowing a forest fire could be closing in. When I see that scene, and I see Sweeney losing his fucking mind over his girlfriend offering a comforting hand because even the simple gesture of touching is traumatic to him in this moment, there’s something that says, “this could be you.” And I’m aware of how ridiculous that is. I get it. But it’s a feeling that is completely outside of intellect and reason and rationale and it is fully in the realm of fight or flight. That’s what a good horror film is supposed to do.

Love it or hate it, or even merely acknowledge its existence, Fire In The Sky is a film that at least dares to go for something more than what was expected of it. The filmmakers took a relatively mundane tale of alien abduction and turned it into a landmark piece of art that devastated millennials and Gen X-er’s alike. By making the ending so weird they took a risk creatively. Some could (wrongly) argue that a “less is more” approach would serve this film better. Maybe in some parallel blessed universe such a film exists and the 30-somethings of said universe sleep the uninterrupted sleep I yearn for. But here, we have an ending that is explicit (although not explicit enough for the late Roger Ebert) in showing us what happened to Travis. It very easily could’ve gone south. It very easily could’ve turned out super cheesy and poorly executed. But it didn’t. It’s a brilliantly horrifying piece of cinema that goes above and beyond what it was supposed to do. The rest of the film is not, however, a 70-minute life support system for 20 minutes of horror cinema. Instead it’s a flawed but competent film that mostly hits the mark in what it sets out to do. When it misses the mark it’s saccharine but forgivable, but when it hits the bullseye it’s transcendent. The ending is rightfully remembered as one of the most bizarre and surrealistically terrifying scenes in modern cinema. But it’s the two scenes I talk about that are the truly technically-adept scenes in the film. Instead of grotesque imagery, they rely simply on empathy and human expression to portray fear and create an atmosphere of terror and dread. It’s one thing to scare the viewer by showing them something frightening. Fire In The Sky accomplishes its goal by showing the viewer people who are already scared by what they’ve seen and then at the end, when we’re good and shaken ourselves, kicks our collective ass with dusty wrinkly alien feet.

 

Justin Lore
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