What happened to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind after he walked onto that looming Christmas-tree ornament of a spaceship? The fact that Steven Spielberg didn’t show us was part of the film’s magic: The image of what an extraterrestrial encounter might actually look like was a half-glimpsed dream we carried in our heads long after the movie was over. In Close Encounters: The Special Edition, Spielberg literalized the dream, offering audiences a peek at the ship’s bedazzling interior. In this case, however, more turned out to be less. Dreyfuss seemed to have entered a deserted alien discotheque — Studio 2054.
Now, though, there’s Fire in the Sky, a concrete slab of science-fiction melodrama that, for all its obvious limitations as a movie, plays on zeitgeist fantasies of an alien visitation as surely as Spielberg’s blissed-out fable did. And how those fantasies have changed! As our culture has grown darker, messier, more laden with violence and dread, so, it seems, has the obsessional fervor regarding UFOs. In Fire in the Sky, Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), a clear-eyed lumberjack from Snowflake, Ariz., is riding through the woods in a pickup truck with his five logging buddies when he spots what appears to be a distant, glowing-red forest fire. Travis gets out of the truck and discovers he’s standing under a spaceship, a molten golf ball hovering in the night sky. Moments later, he has been knocked unconscious and taken away.
It’s tempting to giggle at any UFO movie that claims to be ”based on a true story” (gee, and did it get four stars from the Weekly World News?). What is true is that there is an increasingly large — and diverse — collection of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens; that in marked contrast to the cornball, Bigfoot-ate-my-homework tales we’re used to seeing in the tabloids, the experience most often described is that of a subliminal horror show involving strange medical experiments and vague intimations of being sucked into other dimensions; and that many of the storytellers react to their alleged encounters like deeply scarred combat veterans. Given that extraterrestrial fantasies have often been nurtured by pop culture, what’s striking about the new wave of alien testimonials is how uncinematic they are. At the very least, these people can’t be written off as hucksters exploiting their own delusions.
Fire in the Sky incorporates details from many of these reported stories, even as it keeps Travis’ encounter off screen for most of the movie. As soon as he disappears, the focus shifts over to his five comrades, in particular the surly, macho Mike (Robert Patrick), whose tale of an alien kidnapping becomes the talk of the town. Except that almost no one believes him. The cops, led by a crusty James Garner, think that he and his comrades murdered Travis, and that they’re using the story as a lurid alibi. Although the actors in this movie aren’t bad, there’s no disguising the fact that the first hour of Fire in the Sky is little more than a laborious delaying tactic. Who cares if no one believes Mike? We saw that spaceship, and we want to see what went on in it.
Finally Travis drops back to earth, a naked, shuddering zombie with purple bruises around his eyes and nose. At first, he can’t remember a thing. But as he emerges from his shocked stupor, the experience comes flashing back to him in sinister waves. Quick-cut images of the spaceship’s interior — it’s like a more cavernous version of the hardware labyrinth in Alien — give way to a nightmarish sequence that begins with Travis awakening to find himself sealed in a fleshy womb. He escapes, floats around the spaceship, and is finally pinned down on an operating table where aliens who look like E.T.’s mummified grandparents — they have thin, mean little mouths — subject him to a series of grisly experiments. The scene actually becomes rather grueling (I’d recommend that you keep small children far away), yet it succeeds in evoking the creepy, luminescent strangeness of the new close-encounter myths. It almost doesn’t matter if you don’t believe any of this stuff. For a few queasy minutes, Fire in the Sky lets you meditate on the aliens in your imagination. C+