A little ambiguity would’ve gone a long way in the case of 1993’s Fire in the Sky, a dramatization of Arizona lumberjack Travis Walton’s alleged 1975 alien abduction, and this is coming from a guy who thinks the movies could do without any more cheap, conviction-weakening twist endings à la Inception. Fire seems to be shaping up for a twisty-turny guessing game from the outset, when a battered pickup tears across wooded roads in the dark to arrive at a small town watering hole, unloading five shaken men who huddle together and swear to stick to the same story regarding whatever it is that drove them from the woods. Led by Robert Patrick’s Mike Rogers, they call the police and report their friend Travis (D.B. Sweeney) has gone missing after a terrifying encounter with a spaceship. The rightfully assumed skepticism with which their story is greeted is reason enough for their solidarity, but the script makes an effort to cast a sideways glance at Craig Sheffer’s Allen Dallis, a hotheaded loner with a beef against Travis who believes what he saw but has no patience to revisit the topic.
Since Rogers needs an opponent to second-guess his every word, James Garner pops up as a legendary investigator, and he’s game as the resident authoritarian ass, even if he gets to stay an ass til the very end, because despite the majority of the movie taking place during the manhunt for Travis, director Robert Lieberman remains as convinced of Travis’ abduction as the real Travis Walton, who went above and beyond to sell his story to the press. The loyalty to true-life claims leaves us nothing more to chew on than the fictional Rogers’ melodramatic domestic issues in his confrontations with cops, reporters, and former acquaintances when the arguments against him are given no traction. Sappy flashbacks to the morning and afternoon before the abduction only reinforce the fact that Rogers would never do Travis a wrong turn. Even the casting of the puppy-doggish Sweeney makes it impossible to doubt the sincerity of Travis’ claim, or the unlikelihood that anyone would mean him serious harm.
What Lieberman does give us is a painful picture of small town hysteria reflected in the different ways the five witnesses maneuver life after the incident. Patrick in particular is great as an honest working man who agonizes over his fellow townspeople’s distrust and feels drawn into repeated proclamations of innocence while trying to mourn his friend. Peter Berg works well as Rogers’ churchy, levelheaded sidekick, who tries to lay low while the police go to work, and Sheffer is given the pick of the litter as Dallis, a wildcard who’s known enough trouble that it doesn’t matter to him one way or another if people believe him. They’re the focal point of a largely unclassifiable movie that most comfortably nestles itself at the intersection of buddy movie and procedural melodrama, at least until an eleventh-hour injection of icky alien freakiness that will leave your date wondering what the hell you tricked them into watching.
Admire Fire in the Sky for its rich anamorphic cinematography and eclectic contemporary cast, and later for its pre-2000’s predilection for making alien technology positively nasty. Prepare to be disappointed when it renders itself dramatically inert when it should be pushing more of our buttons. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with an alien abduction as an avenue to explore platonic male relationships, so regardless of what genre wins out in the end, it’s certainly a fun diversion from watching the skies.