Cheesy aliens manage to douse 'Fire in the Sky'


The funniest thing about the alien abduction movie "Fire in th Sky" is that nobody involved gives a damn about being abducted by aliens. They want to make a movie about the pathologies of small-town life, about working-class men entrapped in something they don't understand and struggling to deal with it, about change, turmoil and suspicion. And they do an excellent job.

Then the alien stuff kicks in and the movie just deflates like a pricked balloon.

Reportedly based on a true story, the movie follows the results in Snow Flake, Ariz., in 1975, when five-sixths of a privately contracted logging crew rolled out of a national forest one evening claiming that its last sixth had been abducted by a saucer.

Since the movie has already portrayed this in unblinking, literal reality, there's no mystery at all. Movies aren't journalism, of course, so they're not obligated to some sense of objectivity: but this one throws caution to the wind, gets in your face, and proclaims the actuality of little mooshy men in what looks like a flying lava lamp.

Anyway, the five survivors decided to tell the truth, and, of course, nobody believed them, preferring instead to believe that the five of them had murdered No. 6 and concocted the lamest alibi in history. Community suspicion, very much like a witch hunt, exploded exponentially, the State Police sent its prize investigator to nail them, and the whole fabric of the town began to unravel.

Director Robert Lieberman gets all this brilliantly, particularly as evinced through the character of Mike Rogers. Mike, played by the Robert Patrick who was dangerously mute as the bad shape-changer in "Terminator 2," is a character all too absent from American movies. He's the small-town guy who works like hell and has a rock-steady compass of personal decency by which to steer. Patrick, it turns out, can do a lot more than run, fire a Beretta and melt into the linoleum: he can act, and he gives Mike convincing textures. Mike's a little hot-headed and he's under severe financial pressure. But he's fighting so gamely and working so hard you have to admire his heroic qualities. And his values are solid: wife and two kids, nice little house though he's just surfing ahead of a crashing wave of insolvency.

The others are quickly sketched as well, particularly the creepy Dallis (Craig Sheffer) who never liked the abductee anyway. Peter Berg, who was the best thing in "Aspen Extreme," has a flavorful turn also, though the other two -- including poor Henry Thomas of "E.T.," grown into a lanky teen-ager -- don't make an impression. And, among its other pleasures, "Fire in the Sky" offers great old James Garner a plum part as a state investigator who knows a rat when he smells one. Garner is still a pro and brings just the right old boy skepticism to the part.

Then the abductee -- D. B. Sweeny -- returns and the movie goes belly up.

Besides providing a platform for a lot of Big Acting scenes -- Sweeney gets to shiver and wail and bump into things -- the alien abduction stuff is standard issue. It's all tacky and banal, going nowhere, wrenching the movie into unconvincing nonsense.

"Fire in the Sky."

Starring D. B. Sweeney and Robert Patrick.

Directed by Robert Lieberman.

Released by Paramount.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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