Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With A Quiet Place Part II postponed, check out these earlier movies about hostile alien invaders, all available to rent digitally or stream from home.
Although it was made for the big screen, Fire In The Sky plays, for much of its running time, like a mildly engaging movie of the week—not so different, perhaps, from the TV film its real-life subject may have watched two weeks before his supposed close encounter of the third kind. It’s based on The Walton Experience, an allegedly nonfiction account of how its author, lumberjack Travis Walton, was abducted by aliens in November of 1975. The film, directed by Robert Lieberman from a script by Tracy Tormé, takes his recollections at face value. If the claims of veracity are questionable (even the Fox Mulders of the world seem to regard his tale with skepticism), there’s a big payoff lurking at the end of its poker-faced recounting: You don’t have to believe any of this really occurred to get locked into the film’s tractor beam of terror, to be shocked and disturbed by how it realizes Walton’s nightmarish version of events.
A little patience, however, will be required. Like a lot of movies inspired by sensational tabloid fodder, Fire In The Sky seems certain of how fascinating its ripped-from-the-headlines material is but rather uncertain of how to dramatize it. Most of the film takes place in the aftermath of the incident, with authorities investigating Walton’s disappearance and dismissing the statements provided by his coworkers—including best buddy Mike (Robert Patrick)—who talk of a UFO hovering above the treetops in the woods outside of Snowflake, Arizona. We get this testimony via flashbacks that pretty cleanly obliterate any doubt in the mind of the audience, even as the lie-detector tests the men take fail to exonerate them or corroborate their story. For long stretches, what we’re watching is an unremarkable small-town melodrama about unwavering commitment to the truth in the face of widespread disbelief. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is killing time en route to its raison d’être, the inevitable revelation of what happened to Travis (D.B. Sweeney).
It’s worth the wait. Fire In The Sky’s climax is a tour de force, as scary now as it was 30 years ago. Part of that is the very effective special effects from Industrial Light & Magic—the practical creation of the alien ship, with its womblike organic chambers, and the cruelly curious occupants, with their Nazi-doctor tray of medical torture devices. But it’s also the way Lieberman stages the whole sequence as a gut-wrenching rush of traumatic memory, cutting straight from the victim cowering beneath a table to a queasily intense, disorienting plunge into his night as a terrified lab rat.
Not that the ordeal much resembles what Walton described in his book; fearful that a more faithful translation might look too much like other onscreen depictions of abductions, the filmmakers embellished his “experience” into something closer to the hospital-from-hell scene from Jacob’s Ladder. The irony is that, hoax or not, Walton’s heavily publicized story likely influenced many of those other depictions—including in The X-Files, which premiered six months later and eventually borrowed both imagery and a principal cast member from Fire In The Sky. In the end, the movie isn’t even true to its dubiously true story, but that’s okay: What it’s really channeling is decades of UFO obsession, filtered through sci-fi antecedents and hardened into the worst-case-scenario fear that they will not come in peace.
Availability: Fire In The Sky is available to stream on Hulu with a Starz Membership, and to rent from Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, or VUDU.