Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Justin Barber
Writer: T.S. Nowlin, Justin Barber
Producer: Wes Ball, T.S. Nowlin, Ridley Scott, Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon
Stars: Florence Hartigan, Chelsea Lopez, Justin Matthews, Luke Spencer Roberts
Twenty years after the “Phoenix Lights” incident, a woman looks for clues regarding her brother’s mysterious disappearance.
Scores of Arizonians reported seeing strange lights in the desert sky on March 13th, 1997 during an event dubbed “The Phoenix Lights” incident. That’s the full extent of the “true events” upon which “Phoenix Forgotten” is based. Nothing nearly as nefarious as authenticated alien abduction reports came from the case, though that doesn’t stop the movie’s marketing from inserting “shocking untold” in the middle of its dubious claim.
It would be more accurate to say “Phoenix Forgotten” is based on a slew of “found footage” films that have tsunamied the market in the two decades since “The Blair Witch Project” (review here). In fact, “Phoenix Forgotten” isn’t even the first such “found footage” film revolving around made-up missing persons and set during the Phoenix Lights. Keith Arem’s “The Phoenix Incident” (review here) applied virtually identical ideas in 2015 and, frankly, achieved more entertaining results with its fantastical fiction and enterprising effects.
Yet with master filmmaker Ridley Scott overseeing director Justin Barber’s feature debut in a producer capacity, it’s little surprise that “Phoenix Forgotten’s” storytelling style is still cinematic and its presentation is polished. Anyone who hasn’t already engorged his/her belly to the point of barfing on similarly fabricated first-person affairs may find enjoyable escapism in the movie’s modestly charming characters, quick chills, and filmic finesse.
If, on the other hand, you’ve had your fill of “found footage,” specifically with anything along the lines of “Lake Mungo,” “Grave Encounters” (review here), “Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County,” 2014’s “Alien Abduction” (review here), “Area 51” (review here), “Unaware” (review here), et al. and then some, expect multiple “been there, done that” yawns of boredom. “Phoenix Forgotten” cribs from so many of its precursor peers, perhaps unknowingly as much as knowingly, I can’t even remember which is the one with a nearly identical final shot. Nevertheless, I know I’ve seen it before, and déjà vu is a sense swelling often while watching “Phoenix Forgotten.”
Sophie was celebrating her birthday on that fateful March night in 1997. I don’t know who would hold a six-year-old’s party after 8pm, when the Phoenix Lights were first reported. But luckily, the camera conveniently capturing family festivities could quickly turn to cover the extraterrestrial encounter.
Sophie’s teenage brother Josh, understandably an X-Files enthusiast since it was 1997, became so obsessed with the lights that he set about making his own mini-documentary on the event. This led Josh to a collaboration with his classmate crush Ashley, an uneasy allegiance with his vehicle-enabled pal Mark, and ultimately an unexplained disappearance when all three teens went missing while conducting their amateur investigation.
Twenty years later, Sophie aims to finally dig to the bottom of what happened to her brother. She has to do so by confronting her divorced parents, interviewing former investigators, and reviewing old footage that Josh recorded with his friends. However, when a damaged camcorder serendipitously discovered in storage provides the evidence she waited most of her life for, Sophie isn’t prepared for what the video reveals.
“Phoenix Forgotten” creates such a convincing mockumentary veneer, anyone would be forgiven for thinking Justin Barber and his crew repurposed actual news footage and/or home movies for use in his film. For all I know, maybe he did. Interviewees are believable. Dialogue is organically delivered. Characters establish charismatic connections that make the gradually developing mystery intriguing even when it is only told in talking head recollections.
Yet Barber doesn’t wrap this frame all the way around the film. “Phoenix Forgotten” gains a fair deal of emotionally invested ground only to give it up for a last act playing in the deep end of “found footage” predictability. Gone goes present and past interpersonal drama while in comes green-tinted night vision. Once caught in this trap of a trio lost while screaming at blurry blobs in darkness, “Phoenix Forgotten” loses focus, literally and figuratively, in a lot of haywire video static and violently shaking handheld shots.
What “Phoenix Forgotten” does well, namely establishing an initial air of genuine authenticity, ably pushes the film halfway to the finish line. What it doesn’t do well, specifically by following formula to a fault where bookending is ignored and emotional cords are cut, erects a wall obstructing the tame thriller from moving further.
“Phoenix Forgotten” won’t entirely embody the latter half of its title. But it will get partway there by blurring together with that glut of aforementioned titles, from which this film doesn’t have enough distinguishing characteristics of its own.
Random Note: Does anyone else think s/he is seeing an Amish girl in a bonnet every time s/he glances at the poster/box art?
Review Score: 50