'Phoenix Forgotten': Film Review
The Ridley Scott-produced sci-fi thriller explores the ramifications of a well-known 1990s UFO sighting.
It appears to have taken a surprising commitment of talent to turn out the blandly generic Phoenix Forgotten, another disappointingly derivative imitation of The Blair Witch Project, this time mashed up with the X-Files franchise. It’s unlikely that even Mulder and Scully could successfully reanimate Justin Barber’s feature debut, however, which is likely to pique only passing sci-fi fanboy interest before joining the growing heap of pointlessly unoriginal found-footage castoffs.
Particularly puzzling is the presence of Ridley Scott and his Scott Free Productions, here joined by The Maze Runner’s director Wes Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin, who also serve as producers. Perhaps it was the opportunity to adapt historical events involving alleged 1997 UFO sightings in Arizona as the basis for a speculative thriller that proved irresistible, or maybe the script’s public-domain origins just made for an attractively priced low-budget project.
The movie features a predictably familiar plot: Amateur filmmakers investigating unusual events encounter only dead-ends until they discover orphaned video footage that reveals the mystery’s frightening scope. In this case, the videographer is Sophie (Florence Hartigan), who’s visiting the Phoenix area to help her mother move out of the family home that’s now up for sale.
Sophie uses the trip as an opportunity to begin shooting a project about the Phoenix Lights, a series of reports concerning unexplained aerial phenomena in the sky over the city in March 1997. Believing that the supposed UFO sightings were associated with the disappearance of her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) and two of his friends while shooting a home movie about the uncanny events, Sophie sets about interviewing her parents, relatives of Josh’s friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews), and law enforcement personnel involved in the search for the missing teens.
Josh’s extant 1997 footage chronicles a similar attempt to interview Phoenix Lights witnesses with Ashley’s assistance, a process that eventually leads them into the vast desert wilderness surrounding Phoenix in Mark’s jeep searching for physical evidence of UFO visitations. The fragmentary videotapes prove inconclusive however, and Sophie is almost ready to give up her inquiry when an unexpected second video camera turns up, containing a tape that answers her questions perhaps too conclusively.
In the annals of UFO phenomena, the Phoenix Lights incident is neither particularly menacing nor especially memorable, which might have been a clue that the unexplained event wouldn’t make for particularly dramatic material. Barber and co-writer Nowlin’s script doesn’t face many challenges extrapolating the trajectory of the teen’s investigation, which initially plays out as a rather tedious amateur procedural that discouragingly drags on the pacing, mirrored by Sophie’s own unrewarding investigation.
The supercharged third act, which essentially compresses most of the action into a single long sequence, unreservedly abandons the framing device of the contemporary documentary in favor of Josh’s first-person footage, shot with a Hi8 camcorder. Scenes comprised of the historical analog videotapes appear to have been recorded on the original low-res format or are otherwise very well re-created, complete with typically blurry focus, uneven lighting and unsteady handheld technique. Later scenes include enough well-crafted SFX to realistically imitate consumer video quality of the period.
Unlike the bravado or hysteria that frequently accompanies the found-footage genre, the performances in the 1997 scenes are relatively low-key, relying more on the dramatic development of personal relationships than the shock value of unexpected events. The contemporary storyline offers little of particular interest, however, serving more to contextualize earlier developments.
Footage included from the documentary The Phoenix Lights presents actual, if extremely low-quality, shots of the UFO-like phenomena from the period.
Production companies: Cinelou Films, Scott Free, Oddball Entertainment, Singular
Distributor: Cinelou Films
Cast: Florence Hartigan, Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter
Director: Justin Barber
Screenwriters: T.S. Nowlin, Justin Barber
Producers: Ridley Scott, Wes Ball, T.S. Nowlin, Mark Canton, Courtney Solomon
Executive producers: Michael Schaefer, Wayne Marc Godfrey, David Hopwood, Cai Jian, Robert Jones, Scott Karol, Tom Moran, Yu Wei-chung, Dennis Pelino, Fredy Bush
Director of photography: Jay Keitel
Production designer: Todd Fjelsted
Costume designer: Aggie Guerard Rodgers
Editor: Joshua Rosenfield
Music: Mondo Boys
Casting directors: Fern Champion, Sharon Lieblein
Rated PG-13, 85 minutes