Column: Slicing Score: Fire in the Sky

By Maria Mitchell

Fire in the Sky (1993). Composer: Mark Isham.

Regardless of the widespread incredulous attitude towards alien abduction, I really like this movie. It encapsulates all the uncomfortable reactions a community has when one of their members disappears under circumstances that are unacceptable. This film dramatizes the real-life disappearance of Travis Walton from Snowflake, Arizona in 1975. Where Walton was for the five days he was missing, what caused his disappearance, and why he returned in the manner he did are all questions the film seeks to answer. The answer offered by the film, however, is horrific, and breaks all the safe boundaries of conventional scientific, social, critical, and investigative thinking.

First, a synopsis of the events as they occurred in the film:

Travis Walton and five of his co-workers encountered a UFO hovering near their work site in the Arizona forest, where they were completing the quota for a logging contract. They were off the clock and on their way home when they noticed blinding lights above the treeline. They stopped the car. Travis Walton exited the vehicle to investigate the light. A laser was expelled from the airborne object that blasted him to the ground. In terror, the other five men in the car sped away. The driver, Mike Rogers, returned a few minutes later in a frenzied attempt to find his friend.

Travis Walton was gone.

Cue the soundtrack.

1. “White Mountains, Arizona” – This is a slow, menacing piece that serves as the main titles and contains disturbing, dragging synthesized instrumentation. It elicits the suspense of an Earth about to be menaced by an unknown force. It is dark, paranoid and beautiful music.

2. “Travis Walton” – Not many living people on this planet can say they have a gentle musical theme written for them. This score gave Walton’s character a very pretty theme. Woodwinds get some nice ear-time in this one. Horns give it some gentle heroism. It’s something like the music for a modern-day Paul Bunyan: the theme of a gentle giant.

3. “A Fire in the Sky” – It begins nicely enough with strings bowed at a medium pace. At over seven minutes, however, this piece has plenty of time to slide into darker avenues of musical expression. It does have some dissonant strings and overwhelming synthesized effects, but its dragging percussion and bassoons are what elicit the most dread.

4. “The Return” – This cue is effective in eliciting pain for Mike Rogers as he defends himself and his employees from the anger of the town after Walton’s disappearance. The town believes either he, or one of the other co-workers, was guilty of foul play in regards to Walton.
While Walton is the only one who was abducted, all his co-workers are just as scrutinized and victimized as he was by the labels levied at them by the community they lived in.

The center of this cue contains the music that dramatizes Walton’s unnerving phone call to Mike Rogers after he mysteriously finds himself outside of a gas station in the town of Heber, Arizona.
After the blare of horns at 5:49 that signals Walton looking up towards the sky, the music becomes fast and erratic as he is wheeled into the emergency room. The music is synched perfectly with D.B. Sweeny’s blank, unresponsive, cross-eyed stare as he looks up at the ceiling of the hospital and begins to have images of being dragged through an alien corridor flash through his mind. Walton is experiencing a type of PTSD flashback.

5. “A Man on Display” – Four words: “You left me there?” The guilt that Mike and the other men feel in this film doesn’t come from anything they have done to Travis except one thing: They did abandon him. Only for a few minutes, but it was enough to allow the alien horrors that followed to happen. Mike, understandably, is frustrated and leaves Walton’s bedside in a huff.

6. “Evil Spirits from the Sky” – The same horn rift from “The Return” begins 25 seconds into this cue and the audience sees Walton flash back to the alien ship. Here, he recalls fully what it was he saw while imprisoned by the aliens. High-pitched synthesizers in minors give this piece such a chilling construction. It’s so cool because this part of the 12-minute suite feels as “weightless” as Walton, himself, as he struggles to navigate an alien corridor with no gravity. Beginning at 7:38, Walton is confronted by an alien and percussion picks up as he kicks the alien away. He is dragged through the tunnel he began to remember in the hospital. The tunnel is clearer now and looks every bit like a malignant portal into a nightmarish pocket of the universe that few people ever return from. After Walton is strapped down to an examination table, the menacing music orates in what I can only call sharp, atmospheric shades, with an incessant percussive pounding that has a nice, maddening rhythm.

7. “They Didn’t Like Me/ A Case Unsolved” – This cue is a reinforcement of Walton’s main theme. This musical reiteration is a nice, cyclical return to the center of this story: a person who will not be broken, even by the most horrific of violations. This point is the soul of Fire in the Sky. It is a film, and soundtrack, about the triumph of the human spirit over whatever obstacles collective life, extraterrestrial or otherwise, has to offer.

Fire in the Sky‘s soundtrack is available at: