April 22, 2017 Phoenix Forgotten (Movie Review)
The Phoenix Lights are as well-known to lovers of the paranormal as the Found Footage subgenre is known to fans of Horror and Sci-Fi films. In Phoenix Forgotten, the two are paired together in one very intriguing new film that arrived in 1,700 theaters across the U.S. on April 21, 2017 via Cinelou Films.
On March 13th, 1997, mysterious lights appeared in the skies above Phoenix, Arizona. The lights made the shape of a “V” and reportedly covered an area several football fields in diameter. The presumed object moved silently over residential areas before disappearing into the nearby mountains. This was witnessed by thousands of people and was documented by many of them with photos and video. Even the Governor of Arizona, himself a witness and former Air Force pilot, stated years later that it was like nothing he had ever seen and was “enormous and inexplicable”.
To this day, many would argue that there has been no satisfactory explanation for what was seen that night, but what if there existed some evidence of what the lights really were? This is the question asked by the new found-footage film, Phoenix Forgotten, and it successfully delivers a solid story with mystery and thrill if viewers are willing to stick through it.
Directed and co-written by Justin Barber in his feature-length debut, the story is essentially told in two parts. The first plays out like a detective story, only the detective is an amateur and she is looking for information about the disappearance of three local teens only a few days after the lights event, one of which is her brother. The searching sister, Sophie, is played by Florence Hartigan (Bad Breakup 2013, Humble 2015) with an excellent feeling of determination to her character. She is smart and intuitive but one wonders what she wants to ultimately accomplish on her quest. Her brother and friends have been missing without a trace for 20 years, and her parents eventually divorced over the incident. The missing will likely never be found, nor are her parents likely to reconcile. Despite the search seeming pointless, Sophie is a very likable protagonist whose quest and character both feel human and authentic, something that can often be lacking in the Found Footage genre.
The other part of the first act introduces us to the three teens who went missing after the lights appeared: Sophie’s brother Josh, friend Mark, and female companion Ashley, played by Luke Spencer Roberts (Hail, Caesar! 2016, The Good Neighbor 2016), Justin Matthews (The Interestings 2016, Major Crimes series), and Chelsea Lopez (Blue Bloods series, Law & Order SVU series) respectively. Determined to find out the truth behind the lights, they set out 4 days after the event with a camcorder to document what they find; and they are never seen again. Evidence of their disappearance stops miles from where their car is found, so all that is known is they left the car and continued on foot; the trail goes cold from there.
The three teens are all different, especially Ashley, in the personality department, and they have a good sense of camaraderie with a dash of tension as intimate feelings complicate matters between them. Their screen time is shared between themselves and Sophie in the first act, and that’s a good thing because we never forget that these kids are in the past now; stuck forever in the memories of their loved ones as they were, never aging or changing, with an all too finite amount of life left behind. This strengthens Sophie’s quest and brings viewers closer to her, and really highlights how much she loved her brother and wants to bring some form of closure to this horrible situation.
The second act of the movie switches gears and throws viewers headfirst into Sci-Fi Horror. The clever Sophie visits the high school the teens attended back when, as she surmises that a tape might have been left in the old school-rented camcorder, and as it happens, there was. The recorder, now an old, twisted and battered relic, contains the footage of everything the teens recorded after their trail went cold. To say too much about this would be doing a disservice to any potential viewers, as the film does a great job building the anticipation for the reveal. Suffice to say, Sophie did find out what was going on with the lights and it is nothing less than the stuff of nightmares.
Produced by Ridley Scott (Alien 1979, Blade Runner 1982), Wes Ball (The Maze Runner franchise) and T.S. Nowlin (The Maze Runner franchise, Pacific Rim: Uprising 2018), who also cowrote the film, Phoenix Forgotten, like all Found Footage movies nowadays, can potentially fall victim to apathetic or disinterested audiences at first glance. Not only are audiences vocal about dislike of the genre, but the Phoenix Lights incident has been covered rather extensively in movies already; yet those viewers would be making a mistake to overlook this one. Despite the familiar elements, Phoenix Forgotten is a much better-than-average story with characters that resonate strongly. The determination of Sophie and the result of her journey – that is perhaps doomed from the start to have a less than happy ending – is nonetheless effective in grabbing viewers and putting them through an array of emotions as they will no doubt be behind Sophie one hundred percent.
The dichotomy of the detective act and the final horror is refreshing and keeps much of the danger of being too derivative at bay. If audiences can get past their initial apprehension of a Found Footage film, they are in for a thrilling ride that has solid structure and a payoff that does not disappoint. In a time where Found Footage has lost some of its popularity, Phoenix Forgotten stands a cut above its competition and delivers quality Sci-Fi Horror around the most famous case of mass UFO sightings in American History. For these reasons, CrypticRock gives Phoenix Forgotten 3.5 out of 5 stars.