A film that now feels lost to time, Fire in the Sky is a dramatization of the Travis Walton UFO Incident, which took place just outside Snowflake, Arizona in 1975. Walton and six friends were returning from a logging expedition when they encountered a flying saucer-like object in the night sky. His friends kept their distance, but Travis approached the object and was knocked out by a beam of light. Five days later, he reappeared, walking down the side of a highway, and claimed to remember nothing about his absence except a few fragmentary impressions of aliens tying him down, fitting him with a mask and performing experiments.
Of course, it’s unknown whether Walton and his friends were telling the truth, since there was no hard evidence, so director Ron Lieberman and writer Tracy Torme take a more circumspect approach here, at least initially. While we see the glow of the flying saucer, and witness Walton being taken soon after, all of this happens in retrospect, when Walton’s friends are telling their story to the police. From the outset, then, this is their subjective perception, while Lieberman distances us further from science fiction by adopting the lens of true crime, treating the story as a missing persons case above all else. When Lieutenant Frank Watters, played by James Garner, is called in to investigate, he has the same attitude, and remains sceptical of Walton’s experience right up until the very end, even when he “returns.”
Since most of the film is set in the ellipsis between Walton’s disappearance and return, Fire in the Sky plays as a reworked version of true crime for a male audience. For the most part, true crime focuses on female victims, because there are far more of them, which makes it a pressure point for patriarchy, and garners a strong female readership. By contrast, UFOs produce a landscape where men can vanish as easily as women, or where men can glimpse the precarity that women often experience in public space. Set in the wooded forests of Arizona, Fire in the Sky looks more like the Pacific Northwest (it was filmed in Oregon) and reframes the canonical serial killers of that region, or the region itself as the locus of serial killer discourse, around the more novel idea of male victims. The UFO, like the classical serial killer, haunts remote logging backroads, the best place to dipose of bodies, while Garner’s Lieutenant often plays as a echo of Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper – an officer charged with the supernatural Pacific Northwest – except in this case the agent remains utterly sceptical.
This convergence of UFO and true crime folklore around sites of sublime ellipsis is only one part of Fire in the Sky, however, since Lieberman is just as drawn in the direction of Spielbergian naturalism. Henry Thomas, who played Elliott in E.T., is one of the members of this male troupe, along with Robert Patrick, Craig Sheffer, Peter Berg, Bradley Gregg and D.B. Sweeney, who plays Walton himself. Similarly, Lieberman presents the spaceship as a constellation of the lush lighting that was so in vogue in the late 80s and early 90s. Much of the film is set at the golden hour, the cusp between day and night, which appears to have come late (or early) when the crew first witness the spacecraft, which they mistake both for the sun and for a forest fire. Every scene is full of smoky ambience, mystical ether, while a preponderance for great spectacles descending from the sky – trees, spaceship, people leaping from trees – makes you feel the full mass of light falling through space towards us.
This ambience peaks in the buildup to Travis’ return, when it starts to blend into the media landscape of the film, or becomes the main way in which the film mediates itself. On the night Travis comes back, his friend Davis receives a series of crank calls, and finds his television dissolving into static, which in turn collapses into the driving rain outside. Finally, Walton calls from a gas station phone booth, a liminal space that is both marginal to the world of the film and central to its events, evoking a nascent networked state that bleeds into Walton’s account of what happened to him in the flying saucer. This is the most terrifying abduction scene I have ever seen, partly because of how dramatically it ruptures the naturalism of the first two acts, but also because it apotheosises the ambience of those acts at the same time.
As Walton recalls, he woke up from the abduction suspended in a jelly-like ether. Upon breaking out of it, he discovered that he was cocooned in a vast cylindrical structure. The struggle of breaking free from this jelly segues into the challenge of moving through this structure, which exists somewhere between a gravitational and a gravity-free state. Using elaborate crane work and oblique camera angles, Liberman presents a fluid, fickle medium that sometimes permits Walton to hang in space, and sometimes ebbs and flows him from side to side. It’s as if the air has become liquid, sometimes calm, sometimes moving, and coalescing around a waterfall of space that occurs at the cusp of the cylinder, where Lieberman hones in on small particles of dust as they eddy and whirl as this ether reconfigures itself. The entire sequence thus evokes a new kind of medium – networked, invisible, but ineradicably tactile – in which the aliens arrive as missives from a digitally connected future.
No surprise, then, that this matrix is clearly the inspiration for the scene in which Neo first sees the Matrix in the Wachowskis’ film. In that case, we’re dealing with artificial intelligence, rather than extraterrestrial intelligence, but the result is the same – an encounter with the non-human that forces us to recognise the nascent networking of our lives. What makes Fire in the Sky so unsettling is the way this networked future emerges precisely from the nostalgic naturalism that would seem to be a buttress against it. The perpetual golden hour and ambient granularity of the first two acts condenses into the particles of dust as they flicker and dance on the cusp of the cylinder that leads Walton into his encounter with the aliens.
This ushers in the final set piece of the film, which sees Walton come across these aliens in a series of pods, before losing consciousness once again, and waking to find himself on what appears to be an operating table. Just as the dancing particles of dust segue the sundrenched ambience of 90s naturalism into the graininess of glitch horror, this sequence anticipates the other main form that digital cinema would take in the next decade – torture porn. For the golden light of the first two acts doesn’t simply evoke a world, but a bucolic American body that is now probed, violated and torn apart, as the aliens insert mechanical objects into every conceivable part of Walton’s anatomy. The sequence is more terrifying and imagistic in that the meaning of this experiment remains opaque, in the same way that Walton has never claimed to offer an explanation or interpretation of the events he (supposedly) experienced.
In other words, the meaning is the sheer incongruity of this third act itself – the way that analog light gives way to digital glitch, and the classical cinematic body gives way to the grainy ravages of torture porn. That’s not to say that the aliens are mere allegories for digital culture – Walton and his friends have always stuck by the story – but that this radical continuity between analog present and digital future is the only way that Lieberman can capture the profound strangeness of Walton’s story while preserving the possibility that it might be true. An alien abduction, here, is as unsettling and implausible as the lushest and most nostalgic of 90s Hollywood textures giving way to found footage horror and torture porn in less than a decade’s time – and yet that’s just what happened, which is perhaps why Walton’s story, and Lieberman’s rendition of it, feels even more plausible in retrospect, from our digital present.