Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Keith Arem
Writer: Keith Arem
Producer: Keith Arem, Adam Lawson, Ash Sarohia, Fahad Enany
Stars: Yuri Lowenthal, Travis Willingham, Troy Baker, Liam O’Brien, Michael Adamthwaite, Brian Bloom, Jamie Tisdale, James Patrick Stewart, Fife Symington III, John McCain
Documentary footage explores the unsolved mystery behind the disappearance of four men during the 1997 “Phoenix Lights” incident.
On March 13th in 1997, thousands of people across Arizona and Mexico reported strange lights in the sky during an alleged UFO sighting known as “The Phoenix Lights.” That same evening, four men riding ATVs in the nearby Estrella Mountains went missing under suspicious circumstances that conspiracy theorists attribute to alien abduction and a government cover-up.
One of the two events above actually happened. The other did not. However, writer/director Keith Arem’s mockumentary “The Phoenix Incident” blends fact and fake in such a skillfully slick way that some viewers may walk away wondering if the fictional characters are dramatizations of actual people.
“The Phoenix Incident” is “found footage” presented as a documentary narrative in the style of “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” or “Lake Mungo.” Arem borrows authentic newscast clips concerning anonymous missing hikers to serve his setup of four fictional men vanishing during the infamous 1997 UFO sighting. Arem then ingeniously doubles down on the real life ruse by making the key suspect in the case a member of Heaven’s Gate, the cult that committed group suicide just two weeks after the Phoenix Lights under the belief of boarding a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
I criticized the 2013 film “Shadow People” (review here), another “found footage” mockumentary fabricating content under a “based on a true story” conceit, for not sustaining its illusion outside of the movie. At that time, anyone Googling key names from the film would find my review as a top search result, instead of being guided to mocked-up websites perpetuating the hoax and keeping viewers scratching their heads. That was a missed opportunity for the production to maintain momentum after end credits rolled.
Not so with “The Phoenix Incident.” Google faux missing men Glenn Lauder, Mitch Adams, Ryan Stone, Jacob Reynolds, or murder suspect Walton S. Gayson and you’ll uncover multiple instances of their names dating back several years. You’ll also find confused comments on various message boards thanks in particular to www.maricopamissing.com and a toll free tip line furthering the fiction as something that actually occurred. “The Phoenix Incident” earns special recognition for this creative commitment beyond the fourth wall keeping curious viewers engaged. Citing victims’ families and a “Glenn Lauder Foundation” among the Special Thanks is another clever touch.
“The Phoenix Incident” is almost as much of a monster movie mystery as it is a mockumentary. Being an indie effort, the “found footage” frame works wonderfully around a low budget to create creature carnage economically via sound effects and visual cheats like infrared FLIR footage. This may peeve those thirsting for full-frame views of predatory aliens and ominous spacecrafts, though it’s a case where the format fits squarely with the film’s scope as well as its presentation.
Cursory character development involves one man having a KIA military brother justifying his later urge to rescue a downed USAF pilot while a number of “bro” moments, more than once involving urination or crotch taps, foster the foursome’s friendship. It’s the usual flashback fluff included to fill out backstory, although it is interspersed with timeline-hopping talking heads and other scenes that prevent the first act from being a straight snooze of chronological exposition.
“The Phoenix Incident” plays its last hand a touch early by having its big alien reveal arrive in the midsection. Pace picks up exponentially at that point and keeps applying pressure all the way through to the conclusion. The documentary angle is very convincing up until this switch, and it is perfectly fine that the film chooses to be a little more AvP about its last act. The hiccup is that to function as “found footage,” camerawork is confined to corner-mounted surveillance systems and a shaky motorcycle helmet cam. Such angles simply can’t convey complete scale or intensity when these later scenes are so heavy on firefights and action.
There is also an issue with the ambiguous alien species. Unable to decide between a technologically advanced race capable of outmaneuvering U.S. Air Force pilots easily or snarling, salivating, feral beasts determinedly devouring human flesh, “The Phoenix Incident” opts for a jack-of-all-trades big bad. Movies such as “Alien” take similar approaches, but there isn’t the same level of mythology development taking place here to reconcile both concepts as a singular entity.
Not that a finished feature is in a position to entertain requests, but I also would have appreciated a deeper integration of the Heaven’s Gate cult conspiracy hook. “The Phoenix Incident” does a good job laying a terrific foundation covering a great deal of real and imaginary ground. Yet I can see that Keith Arem and company have the capability to fool an audience even further and they were only a few creative swings short of hitting one to the fence with this concept.
“The Phoenix Incident” may not make it all the way to home plate, but forgiving its flaws is easier when 69 minutes discounting credits doesn’t demand a taxing investment. For hitting at least a double, there is much to admire about the film’s inventive approach to “found footage.” At a minimum, it’s fresher than another routine lost in the woods or haunted asylum investigation. And in the category of “found footage” films featuring alien abduction themes, “The Phoenix Incident” trumps peers like “Unaware” (review here) and “Alien Abduction” (review here) in both production and entertainment value.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 75