The truth about alien visitors may actually be different than what Hollywood has traditionally told you. On the one hand we’ve had the space brothers who have come to help us save the planet and ourselves (Close Encounters, The Day the Earth Stood Still). On the other hand, we’ve had the cosmic badasses who’ve come to create hell on Earth (War of the Worlds, Independence Day).
The two films in our Smackdown ring each suggest another alternative. The aliens are here for purposes that are more mysterious and/or unknowable. They’re not cuddly scientists like E.T. but bizarre and harsh. Both Communion and Fire in the Sky tell us that they’re here taking people out of their homes and neighborhoods in the middle of the night, tagging them like deer in a Lyme disease study, probing and poking them in ways that suggest rape as much as anything else. Possibly more unsettling is that these two films were both based on books which were based on true stories. You may scoff at the word “truth” here, but the fact is, the central characters in each — Whitley Strieber and Travis Walton — have both passed lie detector tests. Show me a Hollywood agent who could do that about today’s phone list, and you’ll begin to appreciate the accomplishment. The questions — as we continue our film exploration of alien contact — are, which version comes closest to what might be the truth about alien intentions here on Earth, and which one is the better film?
Fire in the Sky tells the story of Arizona woodcutter Travis Walton who was, allegedly, abducted into a spacecraft in the mid-’70s in full view of his crew. They were returning from a job, late at night, when they all saw the same thing: a physical craft, hovering in the air above them quite close, full of lights and structure. Walton went out to take a look, ended up in a beam of blue light, and disappeared. His friends ran in fright. Walton was gone for five days, causing authorities to suspect his co-workers of murder. When he returned, he had a spectacular story about being inside an alien craft. And like I said, he and his crew all passed lie detector tests. The film version stars D.B. Sweeney as Walton in a script from Tracey Torme who’d already made a name for himself in the UFO genre with the CBS miniseries Intruders. As a personal aside, I remember, as a near-graduate in broadcasting at the time, covering this story based on the dispatches from the Zodiac News Service while doing the “news” at Eugene’s hippie FM station, KZEL. The story in my mind turned out to be different than the film they made. The film is about 80% centered on the five witnesses who didn’t get abducted. Instead they have to face the folksy and skeptical lawman Frank Watters played by James Garner.
The Defending Champion
Communion (the book) stands with The Interrupted Journey (the ground-breaking Betty and Barney Hill case) and Missing Time (the seminal Budd Hopkins work) as one of the three pillars in the UFO abduction literary genre. Released in 1986, this book rocketed up the best-seller list, stayed there and scared millions. Written by the brilliant writer Whitley Strieber, known for his fiction work, it was presented as a non-fiction account of his interactions with alien creatures. It wasn’t a one-off adventure for the author, though. He’s devoted himself to a collection of books about this topic, submitted to lie detector tests, psyche evaluations, and relentless public scrutiny. Through it all, he’s stuck with the story and put it in a context that feels compelling and truthful. Great as the book was, however, the film was plagued by low budget, awful special effects, a neophyte director, crazy Christopher Walken as Strieber, and problems on the set that rumors swirl around to this day. Despite all that, it has its moments where it disturbs you, makes you jump and fires your imagination.
The screenwriter of Fire in the Sky, Tracy Torme, is a friend of mine, and he’s always been disturbed that the abduction scene in his film was forced on him by the studio (supposedly Brandon Tartikoff) and goes beyond the direct testimony and memory of Travis Walton. Regardless, it’s a riveting, repellant, horrific look at abduction that will scare you because you’ll see what it would be like to be a human being treated with the same kind of distant disregard that we treat animals we are studying. You should see the film, but for those of you who won’t, here is a look at the You Tube excerpt. (But don’t go there — rent the film and see it on big screen in context, really.)
This, by the way, sets up the contrast between these two films. The film made from Strieber’s book looks phony with its little blue aliens who can barely move but is based on a horrifying testimony from the author. The film made from Walton’s book looks astonishing in the abduction sequences that are apparently amplified to boost the film’s box office. Industrial Light and Magic did the special effects for Fire in the Sky.
I won’t deny that Christopher Walken’s performance when confronted by abduction is just more creepy to watch in Communion than D.B. Sweeney’s pre- and post-abduction reaction is in Fire in the Sky. Sweeney comes across as a TV movie actor in his set-up scenes, while Walken makes you feel you’re in a horror film where they’ve locked the doors. Fire in the Sky, however, has a strong supporting cast, lead by Robert Patrick, but there is the James Garner-factor that takes you out of it a bit. And much as these actors try, the truth is, the real action is with Travis Walton on board the ship, and we get very little of that and very late in the game.
I’ve met and talked to both Whitley Strieber and Travis Walton in my travels on the wild side of UFOlogy. The truth is neither characterization is very accurate to the actual men being portrayed.
Both films do leave you wondering about why extra-terrestrials (or extra-dimensionals) would want much to do with a horror writer like Whitley Strieber was at the time or a logger without prospects such as Travis Walton. On the other hand, when we’re tracking a moose in the Alaskan wilderness to study its migration pattern, do we really distinguish one moose from another?
As most readers know, I happen to believe personally that aliens have already come to Earth and are here now. To the extent that the abduction phenomenon is real (some cases obviously are, while many others have other psychological causes), it’s possible that both of these films are telling some version of the truth. My reading convinces me that there are probably two or three types of “visitors” that have tested out humans from time to time. Communion is the version interested in the mind; Fire in the Sky is the version where they’re interested in learning more about what kind of life the Earth supports. So, on authenticity, I’ll have to give it a draw.
This leaves us with the question, which film is the best one? I wanted to like Communion (and, in fact, there are things to like there, like the score by Eric Clapton and Strieber’s very competent writing), but it is so terribly undermined by the unintended comical attempts to show us the trauma Strieber underwent that it just can’t be recommended. Fire on the Sky, on the other hand, is at least a minimally acceptable movie through and through, a little soft in more than a few places, but hard-edged and intense in a place where it counts. I’m not 100% sure what Travis Walton went through during those days when he was missing, but if it was even a little bit like what this movie postulates, you have to watch Fire in the Sky.