Film review: Fire in the Sky

Published: Tuesday, March 16 1993 12:00 a.m. MST

A tale of alien abduction "based on a true story"? So, the ads for "Fire In the Sky" would have us believe.

In fact, the story of Travis Walton is one of the most celebrated and debunked — and therefore most famous — of all so-called "close encounters."

The film presents Walton's story in a matter-of-fact manner, in the form of flashbacks and remembrances, so that the events here are not so much laid out as truth as they are offered as the interpretations of those involved. As a result, the filmmakers can have it both ways: The story is true, insofar as the people involved believe it to be true. Or it might just be their imaginations or hallucinations — or some sort of intricate hoax.

Certainly, "Fire In the Sky" leans in favor of believers, suggesting that all of this really did happen. And some of it is fairly entertaining . . . but whether the audience will buy into it is another matter.

Set in 1975, the film is, more or less, broken into thirds. It opens in the White Mountains area of northern Arizona as five loggers (Robert Patrick, Peter Berg, Craig Sheffer, Henry Thomas, Bradley Gregg) are racing through the woods in their pickup truck. They drive into the small town of Snowflake, sit and talk for a time in the local pub, then call police.

A "state investigator" (James Garner) is brought in by the sheriff and he quizzes the young men, who tell a bizarre story of their sixth member, Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), apparently being abducted by some sort of strange unidentified flying object.

But the investigator probes the matter as a probable homicide and, as one of the five describes it, the entire "stupid Mormon town" turns against the young men, believing them guilty of murder. The weight of this persecution as family and friends doubt them comprises the film's second third.

Finally, Walton returns, traumatized and apparently having starved for five days. At first, his memory is blank but eventually he begins to have flashes of what happened to him and toward the end, his experience at the hands of aliens who perform torturous experiments is presented.

The filmmakers use an odd mix of visual imagery, from jokey "flying saucer" symbolism to set and costume designs that seem right out of "Alien" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." And occasionally the proceedings are lightened by a wisecrack (Sheffer's character is a breath of fresh air).

But most of the way, the film tells its story in deadly earnest, and that is its greatest failing. Had the approach been more humorous or satirical, without necessarily sacrificing the sense that these characters believe it all — in the manner of "Melvin and Howard," for example — it might be more palatable.

Still, there is Garner's skeptical investigator, who gives heft to the piece, and Sweeney is quite good. So is Patrick, last seen as the emotionless android in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." And it's an amusing in-joke to have as one of the five witnesses Henry Thomas, who was the little boy in "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial."

"Fire In the Sky" is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity, along with some brief nudity, but the final alien encounter is far too intense for young children.