the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the Snowflake
I saw the poster and I was intrigued: Alien Abduction, November 5, 1975, 5:49 PM, Fire in the Sky - based on a true story. I've been in the mood to escape. I thought this film might evoke a vicarious thrill. Humans can be so tiresome and earth can be so drab (especially in Long Island City Queens). Instead of leaving "the great globe" I became immersed in the more sordid aspects of life on the mother planet.

Fire in the Sky plays at being an alien suspense movie (e.g. Close Encounters of a Third Kind). In reality it bears little resemblance to that film genre with the exception of a five minute sequence near the close (the victim experiencing flashbacks of being inside the UFO). Fire in the Sky is closer in spirit to Bad Day at Black Rock or High Noon. An idealized Western town facing a crisis of morality which centers around the old Western institution of the "lynch mob". Unfortunately Fire lacks the artistry or the moral fortitude of the two earlier films. Whereas Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper faces fictitious crisis in make believe towns their struggles have a larger resonance than the trials and tribulations of the "real" protagonists in that "real" Western Town: Snowflake Arizona (who could make that up).

The bulk of the movie focuses on the relationship amongst the collection of Snowflake citizens who are snared into a drama sparked by the disappearance of one of Snowflake's finest: a popular local logger. The idea has potential. A small town falling under the cloud of suspicion. Neighbor turning on neighbor.  Was his best friend, the head logger, implicated or was he murdered by a mean spirited, non-Snowflake logger? James Garner is sent to straighten-out the mess. He's non-Snowflake but he can be trusted. We learn from the painful expository dialogue "You're the sheriff who's solved every case. I'm so happy to meet you". Mr. Garner shrugs off the compliments. He wants to get right down to business in the tradition of Mcload. (I know he was Rockford but the Cowboy hat made me think of Mcload. His acting style made me think of the spots he used to do for the Beef industry: "Beef, Real food for real people" - well returning to the real drama). James Garner thinks all this UFO talk is fooey hogwash. He's on a mission to find the truth. Oh yes the truth. The truth is that the logger was abducted by aliens. Therein lies the problem. The mean-spirited actions of the citizens and the sheriff are justified. From an audience's point of view the bad guys fail to be malevolent. (Unless one thinks it unreasonable for a group of people in a small town to be skeptical when told that a space ship just sucked a close friend into outer-space). They're not really evil. They just were denied the opportunity of seeing the first twenty minutes of the movie or more precisely the flying saucer and the campy special effects. Furthermore the good guys fail to be compelling. Their actions are weird even in the bizarre context of the situation. Panic is understandable. Panicking then regrouping only to panic again is less so. Calling UFO watchers instead of the police upon rediscovering your friend is incompressible, not to mention inhuman. I don't think the aliens themselves would have been so cruel.

It is interesting to note the fates of the two central characters: the leader of the logging team and his best friend, Travis, the "victim" of the alien abduction. The leader begins the film as, just that, the leader. He is in charge of a group of loggers which is assigned to complete a government timber contract which he negotiated. He needs the money.  He is behind on his mortgage and is having difficulty  providing for his family (his younger sister as well as a wife and two children). His spousal relationship is strained but nothing outside of the normal toil of a married couple of limited means. Things are tough but it is a community where life is hard. He is facing his responsibilities and enduring with dignity, something Snowflake understands and admires. This is in sharp contrast to Travis; the abductee. Travis is a dreamer; the never ending adolescent with a beat-up motorcycle and pie in the sky ambitions. Travis is a the point where it isn't cute to be a flake. It he really intends to marry his best-friend's live-in sister he must "buckle-down". The epilogue to the film (the obligatory Hollywood happy ending) shows the two best friends making an attempt at reconciliation two years after that fateful night. (Travis originally blamed his friend for being abandoned in the woods). The former leader and bulwark of Snowflake has metamorphosed into a disheveled loner living in a cabin deep in the woods. He lost his job, house and family.(Even his sister, who married Travis, seems to have written him off as a hopeless coward.) Travis is now the well adjusted family man with a thriving business not to mention the proceeds from the best-selling first hand account his torment with the aliens. (A fact never overtly mentioned in the plotline but which can be gleaned from a cursory reading of the opening credits: "Adapted from the novel: Fire in the Sky by Travis). There is nothing wrong with Horatio Alger but what about Timon of Snowflake? The ramifications of the misdeeds of our neighbors in space seem beginning, if not downright helpful, when contrasted with the repercussions of the conduct of the dear family, neighbors and friends of Snowflake. But, once again, who can really blame them. In the realm of skepticism "Alien abductions" certainly rank with incidence of "spontaneous combustion" if not matching sightings of Elvis. In this context the strange, unsettling role reversal of the two lead characters is merely unfortunate not tragic. There is nothing in this tale to evoke more than a sympathetic groan. Peeling  away the extraordinary we are left with the sense of having born witness to one of life's horrible fender benders.

In order for this story to have resonance it must unfold as more than a slow-motion re-enactment of a series of inevitable misunderstandings. It never does. It is all very sad but it is also so inevitable. There is nothing at stake. The cars move slowly on a collision coarse and eventually make contact. This could have been avoided if the audience was placed in the same position as the denizens of Snowflake. It could have easily been achieved by leaving the existence of the aliens as an open question. The film should have begun after Travis had disappeared and focused exclusively on the plight of the friend and his battle with the righteous God fearing townsfolk. Let the audience participate and judge. Give us a stake in the action. Although this would have surely been a more captivating film it is doubtful that it would have been made. The "action space movie" advertising campaign would have been scraped (no beam of light from the heavens on the poster). More importantly the film fires a direct volley at Snowflake U.S.A.; the paradigm of middle American virtue. What kind of a producer would expect a blockbuster from a film devoid of special effects and action sequences which exhibits the darker side of "Mom, the flag and apple pie"? That would take someone of extraordinary vision. Perhaps such a person would believe in aliens. Don't worry there aren't too many of those. No one in Snowflake to be sure.

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