Monday, 3 February 2020

Fire in The Sky (1993): Keep Watching This Space

Note: this review was written as part of the James Garner blogathon being hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews from 3rd to 5th February.

My all-time favourite account of an alleged extra-terrestrial encounter is described in John Rimmer's 1984 book The Evidence For Alien Abductions (p.128-129): Carlos Peccinetti and Fernando Jose Villegas, two casino employees who lived in the Argentinian city of Mendoza were driving home in the early hours of August 31st 1968, when their vehicle suddenly stopped and they were confronted by a small band of humanoid creatures with large heads and overall-type clothing, who presented them with a message using telepathic means. The message, as reproduced in Rimmer's book, went thus: "Do not fear...we have just made three journeys around your sun, studying customs and languages of the inhabitants of the system. The sun benignly nurtures the system; were it not so then the solar system would not exist." Gee, thanks, E.T.. You came from god knows how far and went to all that trouble just to tell humankind something it already knew. Maybe there was a more implicit message to be gleaned from their observation, with its emphasis on benignity and interconnectivity. Peccinetti and Villegas claimed that the mysterious visitors also showed them images of an atomic explosion devastating an oasis, suggesting that they did have a more pressing agenda in mind, and then, somewhat conversely, took their hands and pricked their subjects' fingers three times (Peccinetti and Villegas did indeed have the corresponding puncture marks in their fingers when they later recounted their story to the authorities). But really, you've got to love the ingenuousness of an alien race who would appear to a couple of nondescript travelers to deliver such a charmingly banal message, even one with potentially serious undertones, and then disappear into thin air. No crazier than a number of "real-life" alien narratives, Rimmer observes: "An alien race that travels thousands of light years just to tell us, by means of simple illustrated allegory, that we are in danger of destroying ourselves in a planetary holocaust may have its heart in the right place (wherever that may be for an alien race) but it is hardly telling us anything that is not being said more directly and more forcibly by newspaper and television bulletins every day." He ads that it is "possibly significant that these warnings are invariably given to people who are probably least able to do anything concrete about them." (p.131) Compare this to Michael Rennie's character in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), who at least had the foresight to take his portentous warnings to an assembly of prominent scientists and government officials. Truth is stranger than fiction, you might say. Maybe, but then, just as Peccinetti and Villegas's rather quaint story does not conform to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, it also violated the rules of the real-life alien encounter narrative in the most cardinal of ways - Peccinetti and Villegas subsequently admitted that the incident was a hoax, a twist ending that Rimmer is inclined to attribute to a warning issued by the Mendoza police "that the spreading of stories about UFOs was likely to be penalized by law." The most compelling claims of alien encounters are those which can probably be brushed away but leave just enough wriggle room for ambiguity. But few of them have the gentle charm of Peccinetti and Villageas' concoction.

Ostensibly, the much-publicised case of Travis Walton would appear to offer a more ideal template from which to dramatise the story of a "true-life" alien abduction. The young logger went missing on November 5th 1975, while working in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Park near his hometown of Snowflake, Arizona, and reappeared five days later with vague memories of having been whisked away and experimented on by alien lifeforms. Walton's improbable account was corroborated by his co-workers, who claimed that they had last seen Walton being struck down by a beam of light emitted from a luminous saucer-like object in the sky, after which they had opted to beat a hasty retreat (the group had been driving down a road at night when they encountered the craft, which is the standard opening to many an extra-terrestrial encounter narrative). The facts of the case have never been truly established (what did happen to Walton within his five days of oblivion? Did he conceal himself out in the wilderness until he figured that the time was right to bring his little prank into fruition? Did he suffer some form of neurological malfunction which caused his fantasies of alien abduction to seem entirely genuine? Or was he, as he claimed, really plucked from the ground and temporarily trussed up in a laboratory operated by a race of intrepid space explorers?), and as far back as 1984, Rimmer expressed pessimism that they ever would be: "The chances of ever arriving at the truth behind the Travis Walton case, as each year passes...become increasingly remote." Rimmer does, however, supply a possible motive for why the entire group might have colluded on such an outlandish hoax, noting that they were behind schedule on their forest-clearing duties: "they might have thought that a frightening experience like an abduction would furnish a good excuse for welshing on a contract, without financial penalty." (p.65) Whatever the reality, the resulting media attention ensured that Walton's story shortly became one of the most well-known accounts of alleged alien abduction worldwide, and he was able to profit from the incident by writing a book, The Walton Experience, in 1978. On the surface, his story would appear to have it all - mystery, intrigue, suspense, even a suggestion of back-stabbing betrayal, given that his co-workers were suspected of murdering him within his five-day absence. And yet, when Hollywood finally brought the story to the big screen in 1993, directed by Robert Lieberman under the title of Fire in The Sky, Walton's account was deemed too lacklustre for Paramount's liking, and the alien sequences were spiced up to provide, in the words of Entertainment Weekly's Ryan Murphy, "a flashier, more provocative rendering" of Walton's too-close-for-comfort encounter.

The confrontation between Walton (portrayed here with a disarming sincerity by D.B. Sweeney) and his extra-terrestrial captors departs considerably from Walton's description in The Walton Experience, which Paramount felt was too vague and, by 1993, too familiar to sci-fi savvy audiences. This would be a good point to confess that I have never read Walton's book, which is long out of print, so excuse my inability to compare just how much of a departure theses moments are. Nor, for the purposes of this review, am I massively interested in assessing the credibility of Walton's account, although I think it's important to note that there is an all-round lack of evidence to corroborate it, other than that Walton and his associates all passed polygraph tests, which isn't exactly the most impressive of evidence from a scientific standpoint (and besides which, they also failed a number of other tests). Important, because Lieberman's film frequently has to contend with the challenge that Walton's story is really just a whole lot of void. Technically, there's not a great deal that really happened. Walton went missing, his friends faced a barrage of dirty looks from the townspeople and questioning by authorities, until he eventually showed up with a crazy story, but generally none the worse for wear. There are very few solid answers in this tale, and consequently, Fire in The Sky finds itself straddling a narrative emptiness for its duration; despite Hollywood's attempts to inject some extra alien juice into the affair, the story feels purposely constructed to play into the idea that "real-life" does not conform to a tidy narrative structure.

Fire in The Sky arrived four years after Philppe Mora's 1989 film Communion, which depicted the alleged alien abduction experiences of horror writer Whitley Strieber, and which was most notable for Christopher Walken's weirdly engaging performance as Strieber, a man who is intensely afraid and whose fear always seems to be teetering on the brink of morphing into something altogether more dangerous. Fire in The Sky eschews the consciously loopy overtones of Communion in favour of a more down-to-earth approach, one that is less interested in probing the objectivity of the abductee's claims (skeptics should note that Lieberman's film takes a generally uncritical view of Walton, and is largely inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt) than in recreating a more authentic, lower-key drama about the knock-on effects on the surrounding community. Fire also arrived a few months ahead of Chris Carter's zeitgeist-defining TV series The X-Files, which debuted in the fall of 1993, and as such was part of a cultural shift in which humankind found itself gazing up with renewed interest at the stars, our thoughts turning from the genial to the conspiratorial. The success of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of The Third Kind in 1977 had previously seen Hollywood adopt a more optimistic outlook on extra-terrestrial life, or at least the intelligent ones who chose to visit us on Earth (elsewhere, there were still ample animalistic terrors to be discovered in the far corners of space, such as the titular creature of Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, but you generally had to go looking for them), one that seemed light years away from the hostile invaders (manifestations of Cold War paranoia) that had dominated much of 1950s science-fiction cinema. There were some exceptions, such as the voracious shape-shifting entity from John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), but benevolent visitors were a mainstay for 1980s Hollywood, from Spielberg's E.T. : The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), to Ron Howard's Cocoon (1985 - those of us with a slightly sicker outlook like to speculate that the aliens there were really harvesting elderly Earthlings for consumption in the manner of the "To Serve Man" episode of The Twilight Zone, although alas, this is not supported by the 1988 sequel Cocoon: The Return), to the frisky little Fix-Its of Matthew Robbins' *batteries not included (1987). Come the 1990s, though, and the world was ready to get suspicious about our possible cosmic company all over again, hence the explosion of the "The Truth is Out There" movement, which cast aliens as, if not necessarily villains, then elusive forces operating above our heads and beyond our control. In 1995, the Fox network, drunk on the success of The X-Files, broadcast the infamous (and totally fake) Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction. With Independence Day (1996) we were back to the all-out hostility of the B-pictures of the 1950s, whereby aliens were openly intent on replacing us as the planet's dominant species, an ambition they were all-too happy to demonstrate by blowing up a few world landmarks - although even here this was implied to be the outcome of decades' worth of conspiratorial dealings (Area 51 comes up, and we have one character who was apparently dragged aboard a spacecraft in a similar manner to Walton and subjected to an extremely unpleasant rectal probing). Men in Black (1997), meanwhile, had it both ways - some aliens were a threat and others were benign; in both cases, they had an established presence among us that was to be shielded from the public at all costs.

The aliens of Fire in The Sky are far-removed from the amenable visitors who carried Richard Dreyfuss to the great beyond, in that they are clearly not benevolent, but neither to they exhibit the open hostility of the explosion-hungry space locusts who lay waste to the White House in Independence Day. These particular visitors are more elusive and mysterious. It's clear that Walton is not the first human they have abducted and victimised in such a manner (during his encounter, Walton stumbles across the decaying remains of a fellow abductee who wasn't quite so fortunate), although the film has surprisingly little to say about the aliens themselves and their interest in the denizens of Earth. Are the horrifying experiments they conduct on Walton (which involve smothering him in something resembling egg membrane and inserting a phallic-looking instrument into his eye socket) signs of some coming catastrophe for the human race, or have the aliens already exhausted their inclination for conducting highly unpleasant probing procedures with Walton and moved on? We never do find out. And while the film's extra-terrestrial sequence is its most striking, visually and emotionally, it feels like the most superfluous from a strictly narrative perspective.

Fire in The Sky was marketed as a picture about a Walton's abduction experiences, with the film's theatrical trailer putting more emphasis on the aliens' eye-view of their subject than does the film itself and suggesting, more explicitly than anything in Tracey Torme's script, that their motivation for taking Walton was rooted in simple scientific curiosity. ("How does it think? What makes it move? Why does it breathe? Questions anyone would ask about a man, if they'd never seen one before.") The overall lack of focus on the extra-terrestrial element within the actual film frustrated some viewers, including Roger Ebert, who stated that, "The scenes inside the craft are really good...for once I did believe that I was seeing something truly alien, and not just a set decorator's daydreams," but added that, "the movie's flaw is that there's not enough detail about the aliens". Despite the deceptive marketing, Fire in The Sky is not actually that interested in the aliens - nor, for that matter, is it really Walton's story at all, but that of his close companion, Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), who endures a considerably less spectacular but every bit as life-altering experience (if not more so) across those five days of uncertainty.

Fire opens by setting itself up in the style not of a traditional sci-fi, but of a whodunnit, introducing us to the five key players who claim to have witnessed Walton's ill-fated close encounter, and who may or may not know more than they are letting on - in addition to Rogers, the group's leader, there's local church boy David Whitlock (Peter Berg), the youngest of the group, Greg Hayes (Henry Thomas - I see what you did there), Robert Cogdill (Bradley Gregg) and Allan Dallis (Craig Sheffer), a drifter with a tendency toward confrontation. Lt Frank Watters (James Garner) is our sleuth, having traveled all the way down from Montana to investigate the outlandish case, and bringing with him a reputation for never yet having to close a case unsolved, which Watters declares as, "Nothing but a myth, but a damn fine one," warning us not to allow the temptations of an attractive story to obstruct our comprehension of reality. Our relationship with Watters as a character is two-fold - his down-to-earth approach and determination to get to the facts of the matter appeals to our own desire to uncover the truth and inject some much-needed rationality into this baffling situation. On the other hand, our allegiances are clearly aligned with the group and not the outsider. For all of his hard-nosed affability, we identify Watters as another kind of outside invader who threatens the unity of the group, not so much by exposing a few well-concealed truths as by bringing to the surface the uncomfortable realities that are basically always evident. Suspicion falls on Rogers and his men, particularly Dallis, who has a history of aggressive behaviour and had taken a visible dislike to Walton, and the loggers swiftly become personae non gratae among the residents of Snowflake. The band's account of Walton's disappearance is presented in flashback, giving an air of subjectivity to their story, although the film's earnest tone does not engender suspicion, and the whodunnit elements give way into a more modest kind of small-town drama, in which the malaise eating away at the group has less to do with whatever details have not been disclosed than with the unpalatable implications of the story they have already shared.

The truth, as far as Fire in The Sky is concerned, is not out there. There are a tremendous number of unknowns, but the film is happy to leave them as such. They are simply narrative voids, empty spaces, a point underscored in one sequence in which we see Rogers watching TV in the shadows, gazing into it as though he expects it to reveal some deeper meaning and seeing only static. The darkest and most disturbing truths, the film suggests, lie within. Rogers spends most of the story grappling not with the mysterious particulars of Walton's disappearance, but with what is all too plain to him - the knowledge that he, as the driver of the vehicle, was the one who ultimately made the decision to abandon Walton to his fate. An unforgivable act of betrayal or an understandable response to extraordinary circumstances? That's up to the viewer to decide. The question as to whether Rogers is more to blame for his impulsiveness, or Walton for his recklessness, is another where the film ultimately takes no firm stance. And, to be fair to Rogers, he did have four other passengers he potentially managed to get out of harm's way in choosing to move when he did. Nevertheless, the fear visibly weighing on Rogers in the aftermath is that, even if neither he or his men murdered Walton, he must bear responsibility for his presumed death. For all of the glossy production that goes into re-imagining Walton's experience (when he finally reappears), Fire is more interested in Rogers' journey, and in that sense it plays as a sort of anti-Close Encounters of The Third Kind. There are obvious parallels in Rogers' arc with that of Richard Dreyfuss's character, Roy Neary, in that their respective brushes with extra-terrestrial activity each result in the total disintegration of their domestic stability, except in Rogers' case there is no final validation or catharsis. In Spielberg's film, the breakdown of Roy's family is seemingly presented as a necessary sacrifice in pursuit of a wider truth, and by the end Roy's convictions are affirmed when the extra-terrestrials invite him to accompany them on the next phase of their journey. Having come this far, Roy's willingness to take the final step into the unknown is the ultimate form of vindication. There is, however, a darker subtext, given that Roy has burned so many bridges along the way that the depths of space may now be the only avenue available to him. Paula J. Massood, writing in American Cinema of The 1970s: Themes and Variations (ed. Lester D. Friedman), observes that, "In the end, it appears that Roy's place is with the aliens on the mothership because he has nothing to which to return." (p.191). In Rogers' case, the domestic breakdown is more subdued. An early sequence establishes Rogers as an enthusiastic father to his two young daughters, but introduces a clear element of strain to the family dynamics when he and his wife Katie (Kathleen Wilhoite) quarrel about their financial situation. Following Walton's disappearance, we see these tensions heighten as Rogers and Katie argue about the practical ramifications of the incident - the increased financial pressures caused by Rogers losing his job, and the family having to face the judgement of the community - but for the most part the disintegration occurs off-screen, and is woven into the mundane detail of the general reaction within those five days of cold uncertainty. We end up (spoilers) in the exact same place as Spielberg's film, with Rogers exiled from the family home, and with no going back, but compared to Roy's ceremonious departure into the stars, Rogers endures a far more ignoble expulsion, opting to quietly retreat to the solitude of a shack out in the wilderness, rather than linger in the town in which he feels that his standing has been so irrecoverably uprooted.

When Rogers brings the recovered Walton up to speed on his marital crisis, he acknowledges that the breakdown of his relationship with Katie might always have been inevitable, with or without the added trauma of Walton's disappearance. But this too is uncertain - the overwhelming sensation that dominates Fire in The Sky has to do with just how dramatically an unexpected occurrence can alter the course of one's existence. The film opens with a quote from Roman philosopher Seneca The Younger: "Chance makes a plaything of a man's life." The implications of this statement, in this context, are two-fold. The idea of men as playthings alludes, on one level, to the implied extra-terrestrial perspective, in which humans are little more than specimens to be collected and manipulated to their own ends. But it also alludes to the notion that humankind is ultimately always at the mercy of a higher power, even if that power is nothing more than simple circumstance. The critical implication is that things are never going to be the same again, either for Rogers or for Walton. The Walton who returns from his alien encounter is clearly not the same Walton who approached that fire in the sky; a point hinted during his flashback aboard the mothership when, shortly before being seized and vivisected by his extra-terrestrial company, he emerges from the membrane in which his captors had him contained and dangles, suspended, by a long white thread reminiscent of an umbilical cord. You don't have to squint too hard to see the re-birthing metaphors implicit in this sequence; indeed, the imagery is evocative of Alvin Lawson and William McCall's "Birth Trauma Hypothesis", in which the abduction experience is interpreted as an unconscious expression of the horrors of being extracted from the womb. The sequences focusing on Walton's trauma suggest a lessening distinction between the creatures that toyed with him and the people to whom he has returned - a hospital corridor merges with the tunnels of the alien dwellings, while a social gathering of friends and neighbours coaxes out his most overpowering flashback - raising questions as to the extent of his alienation. Here, the film implies that Walton is unable to return to what once seemed entirely familiar to him, the insinuation of human and extra-terrestrial practices not being so different suggesting a newfound distrust of the community with whom he formerly identified - which is perhaps nothing more than a manifestation of the resentment he feels toward the buddies who left him to his fate.

It comes as a surprise, then, when the epilogue reveals that, two years on, Walton has successfully readjusted to life in Snowflake and settled down with his partner Dana (Georgia Emelin), with whom he now as a child, and a second on the way. The most startling aspect of the film's conclusion, though, comes not from Walton overcoming the odds, but from the implication that he has supplanted Rogers, who has traded in his life of domesticity for one of total seclusion. Walton is not the same man he was at the start of the film, but in his case the changes are more subtle - the reckless abandon with which he once biked down the streets of Snowflake has been neutered out in favour of the quiet restraint with which he drives his automobile to Rogers' isolated shack. Rogers, who didn't endure anything half as extraordinary as Walton, has also been altered by the experience, and his case he has been left considerably more maladjusted. By the end of the film, Rogers and Walton have effectively switched the established places of their opening dynamic, in which the tensions between the two characters are presented a matter of wildness versus domesticity. In an early scene, Rogers warns the carefree Walton against proposing to Dana on the grounds that he is, "too much of a dreamer for marriage." (That Rogers accuses Walton of being a "dreamer" is one of the few moments in which the script leans unambiguously on the on the side of skepticism with regards to his far-fetched yarn of alien abduction.) Two years later and it is Rogers who has sought out the refuge of the wilderness, albeit a very different wilderness to the one Walton once inhabited, marked not by carefree abandon but by furtive secrecy. Unlike Roy's predicament at the climax of Close Encounters of The Third Kind, however, it would be inaccurate to suggest that there is nothing left behind for Rogers to return to. Walton informs him that everybody back in Snowflake misses him and of the life carrying on his absence. Rogers' exile, it seems, is entirely self-willed, his single act of disloyalty having convinced him that he no longer belongs with the society he knew. Meanwhile, we might question if Walton's apparent assimilation into domestic family life is indicative either of a newfound maturity or a broken spirit, now that his dreams been supplanted by the harshest of nightmares. (It is probably not a coincidence that it's Walton's attachment to his motorcycle key - the symbol of his formerly untamed heart - that botches his attempt to elude the aliens while on board the craft and leads to his being seized and experimented on.)

Toward the end of the film, Watters once again acts as a surrogate to the viewer's skepticism, and speaks to our desire for conclusive answers, when he reminds us that the story is technically not over, and that there could be further developments yet to come in the tale of Travis Walton. In his final scene, Watters proposes that the story was concocted as a bid for attention, and insists that one day the participants will slip up, whereupon he will return for them, although paradoxically he points to yet another narrative void - the uncertainty of what lies ahead - and his insistence that the truth will inevitably out is undermined by the fact that his own story thread simply fades into nothing. Truth, after all, is not what the picture is seeking. The closest the film offers to closure on the alien front takes the form of its flippant closing punchline, when Walton, having reached something resembling reconciliation with Rogers, assures him that his abductors are unlikely to bother them again. Why is that? "I don't think they liked me." The implication being that all future prospects of establishing closer relations with our cosmic neighbours have been cancelled, for better or for worse, based on who they happened to abduct and take a disliking to on a particular night. No more arbitrary than anything else in this chaotic universe.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry about taking so long to add a reply ... loved this post and your take on this film, sounds an interesting one too. Thanks for joining!