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‘Fire in the Sky’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1993


Robert Lieberman
D.B. Sweeney;
Robert Patrick;
James Garner;
Craig Sheffer;
Peter Berg;
Henry Thomas;
Noble Willingham;
Kathleen Wilhoite
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Considering the regularity of alien abductions -- one every few seconds, jokes Carl Sagan -- humans either are the universe's most popular species, or its most deluded. "It's surprising that more of the neighbors haven't noticed," the scientist wrote recently. Well, Mr. Billions and Billions, apparently sometimes they do, or we wouldn't have the dullish, "real-life" space-napping movie, "Fire in the Sky."

It was the evening of Nov. 5, 1975, on a forest service road in northeastern Arizona when six loggers observed the arrival of yet another saucer from the china closet of the gods. One of them, Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), gets out of their battered pickup to investigate and is zapped by the ship, which looks like a bloodshot eyeball oozing Murine. Thinking Travis dead, the other five flee for their lives. But the crew chief, Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), goes back for his best friend, who is nowhere to be found.

The loggers, a scurrilous lot, are met with skepticism by the people of Snowflake, who hate it when the tale draws outsiders to their dreary little backwater. (Healthy skepticism when you consider that a tabloid account, "Nebraska Man Kidnapped by Aliens," was discovered in the loggers' truck.) The witnesses are also hounded by a garrulous lawman (James Garner), who suspects foul play until Travis reappears five days later, bruised, thirsty and incoherent. By now, Mike's marriage is on the rocks -- not that we care -- and he's really having a hard time sleeping -- not that we care.

Writer Tracy Torme, who wrote six episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," commits dramatic hara-kari by focusing on the domestic travails of the other loggers instead of Walton's visceral ones aboard ship. We want to go inside, as Steven Spielberg knew, when he re-released "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with a smidgen of new footage showing the gentle extraterrestrials, who apparently came to Earth to play a big organ.

But "Fire's" surly beings -- who look a bit like sentient prunes -- have come to play with our organs, stick pins in our eyeballs, poke needles in our ears and stuff us full of what appear to be gobs of jellied sheep dip. It's not pretty, but it keeps you awake. The production designer obviously took his cue from "Alien" in putting together this grody mothership with its slimy and claustrophobic corridors. Poor Travis must have felt as if he was crawling about inside a king-size nostril.

Sweeney, the lovesick skater in "The Cutting Edge," and Patrick, the shape-shifting killer in "Terminator 2," don't so much act as maintain a decaying orbit. The human characters, perhaps because they're ordinary as dirt and about as bright as tree stumps, don't change or control their fates. Things happen to them. Essentially, this is a film about humans as victims of alien abuse, a mediocre look at helplessness.

The director of "Fire in the Sky" is Robert Lieberman, whose most distinguished credit is TV's "Gabriel's Fire." He's like the proverbial moth when it comes to flames: He can't stay away from them, and his career seems to be going down in same.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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