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Anatomy of a Scene: The terrifying alien abduction in 'Fire in the Sky'

Although Twitter and other unequivocal social media platforms may think otherwise, it’s difficult for a film to be considered truly ‘bad’, particularly as usually there is a diamond of quality in even the most barren cinematic wastelands. 

This is proved to be undeniably true in the 1993 alien abduction movie Fire in the Sky, following an Arizona logger who mysteriously disappears for five days in an alleged encounter with a flying saucer in 1975. Based on a true story, the film deals with the abduction itself as well as the reaction of his friends and family who struggle to bring him back to the reality of life when he regains consciousness on earth. 

A film of middling quality, Fire in the Sky is largely remembered for its extraordinary impression of alien life, with its human scenes on earth leaving much to be desired. As Roger Ebert rightly pointed out in his original review, “the scenes inside the craft are really very good. They convincingly depict a reality I haven’t seen in the movies before, and for once I did believe that I was seeing something truly alien, and not just a set decorator’s daydreams”.

Ebert does a good job of trying to describe the nightmarish scenes, though it is truly difficult to do the extraordinary moment justice, with director Robert Lieberman doing a remarkable job of putting the audience on the operating table from which the protagonist suffers from. 

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Forced upon the raised stone platform with a bright white light hanging high above him, the protagonist Travis Walton is surrounded by three fleshy alien beings overseeing the operation, looking like far more realistic depictions of extraterrestrials, in comparison with what Hollywood usually offers. Screaming so much that it almost sounds like droning stock footage, the sheer terror of the situation is quickly established by the entirely convincing set design. 

Wrapped in a tactile rubber lining that mimics cling film, pinning him tightly to the surface, Walton awaits his treatment, with total fear present in his darting eyes that the filmmaker takes pleasure in focusing in on. Around him, the aliens look on in bewildered curiosity, like a child peering at a helpless animal through the glass in a zoo, totally devoid of mercy and emotion, they offer no chance of aid. 

Trapped inside a rubber coffin, Walton’s screams are restricted to his own personal nightmare before one of his eyes and his mouth are cut open from underneath the rubber and his muffled screams are let free. Unrelenting and blood-curdling, these screams plea for mercy and desperately clamber for help in an environment that is dedicated to making him suffer. 

As the torture continues, Lieberman brings the camera in even closer, giving us a good look at Walton’s mouth as one of the aliens takes a handful of black sludge and smothers his mouth and agape throat. Distorting his cries, Walton sounds as if he’s drowning as he clings to life, meanwhile a circular metal contraption places itself over his eye, releasing a somewhat venereal milky liquid. 

Tied down, compromised and vulnerable, a metal claw reaches down from the bright heavens and attaches a tube to the device protruding from Walton’s mouth before extending a sharp needle that’s heading for his eye. Whilst much of the scene operates in silence, for these last few moments, the soundtrack replicates the protagonist’s heartbeat with clanging industrial sounds, heightening the horror to a terrifying degree. 

The whole moment is a masterful example of how makeup, special effects and set design can elevate a moment that largely comes out of nowhere, with little leadup and zero dialogue to heighten the drama. As far as alien abduction scenes go in cinema, there are none that even come close.