Phoenix Forgotten (2017)
Rated PG-13 for terror, peril and some language
Score: 3 out of 5
Score: 3 out of 5
As a horror fan in 2017, the words "found-footage horror movie" are often a warning label for me. The subgenre has its quality entries, to be sure, but way too many of them, especially at the genre's height a few years ago, were cookie-cutter ripoffs of those better films that used the style to cover for a lack of ideas, budget, or decent cinematography. The Hollywood machine's trademark lack of originality was especially galling here, given the fact that the reason the found-footage style became so popular was because it was so unlike any mainstream horror film of the time. The best found-footage films in my opinion have been those that fully leaned into the style, and didn't merely use it to tell the same old spooky story from a different camera angle. The Blair Witch Project eschewed a proper script altogether, and was filmed more like a reality show or improv theater than a movie. Sinister was about the footage itself becoming the means for the bad guy to start attacking the main characters. Cannibal Holocaust, arguably the first found-footage movie ever made, used it for a scathing indictment of neo-imperialism and media sensationalism, as a film crew documenting an Amazon tribe stages horrific abuses to catch on camera before getting their (pun intended) just desserts.
So imagine my surprise when Phoenix Forgotten, a low-budget found-footage alien movie whose advertisements have been mainly focusing on Ridley Scott's involvement (even though he only produced it and didn't have any creative input) and the tantalizing prospect of pretty young people getting abducted by aliens, turned out to have a bit more up its sleeve than the ads suggested. What the trailers and posters don't show is that there's an entire second film in here, a mockumentary about the sister of one of those pretty young people, twenty years later, trying to find out what happened to him through the tapes he and his friends left behind. It doesn't even turn into a proper horror film until the third act, instead playing more as a mystery for the first hour as our protagonist unravels what happened to her brother. It's not a classic like those films I mentioned earlier, with some problems in the pacing, production values, and acting departments, but a story that had me riveted helped elevate what could've been a rote, by-the-numbers creeper.
The film is based on the Phoenix Lights, a famous real-life mass UFO sighting in the skies over Phoenix, Arizona in March of 1997. While the official explanation is that it was flares dropped as part of an Air Force training exercise, the alternative story, that it was either a group of spaceships flying in formation or a single massive, V-shaped craft, became a part of UFO lore. Here, we get the story of three teenagers, Josh, Mark, and Ashley, who went out searching for spaceships in the wake of the Phoenix Lights and were never seen again, their Jeep found abandoned on the side of the road. Twenty years later, Josh's younger sister Sophie, now a twentysomething adult whose life was irrevocably changed by the incident, is making a documentary about the disappearance of her brother and his two friends, seeking to find the truth about what had happened to them. As she does so, she starts to discover that her brother's passionate interest in aliens and UFOs may not have merely been the reason for his and his friends' trip into the desert, but also the reason why they never returned.
Outside of the requisite special-effects-filled finale, this film is a slow burn. Interested more in developing its characters than in non-stop frights, the spotlight is placed on Sophie for the first hour as she interviews her parents, the parents of Josh's friends, former cops who were part of the missing persons investigation, and even the press secretary for the state governor at the time. Interspersed with the present-day segments are videos that Josh had recorded in 1997, as he in turn investigates the Phoenix Lights with Mark and Ashley, hoping to discover real proof of extraterrestrial life visiting Earth. The first hour or so was probably my favorite part of the film, thanks partly to the actress playing Sophie and partly to the unique way it handles its found-footage conceit. The ending is a foregone conclusion, we know what happened to Josh, Mark, and Ashley, and so most of this film is structured not like a found-footage film, but like a documentary as we follow Sophie's quest for the truth that we know is out there. The film that I was frequently reminded of while watching this was The Last Broadcast, an obscure contemporary of The Blair Witch Project, albeit a version of that film that managed to stick the landing for the most part, not letting itself get dragged down by an asinine last-minute plot twist or by an uninteresting narrator/protagonist. The film also does a great job selling the '90s setting in the found footage. While some of the details (modern cars spotted on the road, references to films that hadn't come out by early 1997) were off, the film gets the broader strokes of the '90s down pat, especially with a high school news broadcast that Ashley recorded for the AV club that's embarrassingly accurate to anybody who went to school during that time.
At the end of the day, however, this is a horror film, and as Sophie completes her quest to find her brother's lost footage, the film transitions in its third act into a more conventional found-footage film. The setup of the first two acts, developing Sophie and her missing brother Josh through her relationship with him and his relationships with Mark and Ashley, does help elevate the affair somewhat thanks to said character development, as does the lack of jump scares and greater reliance on paranoia as the characters get lost in the desert at night while encountering every indication that aliens are closing in on them, and that they don't come in peace. However, the acting was fairly hokey, with Ashley especially being badly overacted and hammy and the two guys doing little to leave much of an impression. Furthermore, while the big found-footage finale is competent and does give the viewer some cool sights, most notably a very unusual alien spaceship, there's not a whole lot in it that's out of the ordinary, and after the buildup of the first hour, it feels like a bit of an anti-climax. It's here where the "foregone conclusion" nature of the film catches up to it -- we know that the three of them are going to get abducted by aliens, so I would've liked it if the filmmakers added a little something extra rather than just going through the motions for how the ending plays out. The film drops a bunch of hints in its first hour for what the aliens could be, particularly when it brings up the story of Ezekiel's wheel, which could've made for some interesting twists on the alien abduction story.
The Bottom Line
A film that's easy to overlook, but which is still worth it to catch, thanks to an interesting twist on the found-footage style that elevates it above its faults. It's still a bit of a trifle at the end of the day, but it's a diamond in the rough.