Phoenix Forgotten 2017
On March 13, 1997, several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix. Three teens went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town. They disappeared that night and were never seen again. Now, on the 20th anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition.
April 21, 2017
Justin Barber, T.S. Nowlin
Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez
Alien: Covenant isn’t the only Ridley Scott-produced tale of intergalactic terror hitting theaters; the found footage creeper Phoenix Forgotten, written and directed by Justin Barber (his debut feature-length film), invaded theaters nationwide today(April 21st). With all the hallmark trapping of the subgenre (shaky cam, improved-sounding dialog, and purposely low-tech presentation) it stands in stark contrast to what we’ve seen of the big-budget Covenant so far (in numerous trailers). Still, Phoenix Forgotten proves that, in the right hands and anchored by a compelling story, found footage is still an effective method of producing intensity and emotional connections between the characters and the viewing audience.
Background: The Phoenix Lights refers to what many consider to be the most documented mass UFO sighting in US History. On March 13th, 1997, thousands of people (thousands!) witnessed a triangular formation of lights hovering over the skies of Phoenix, Nevada and Sonora, Mexico. The event was widely documented on video and reported nationally and internationally on major news networks. Some say the lights were a series of vehicles flying in formation, while others insisted it was a single, immense structure with a wingspan over a mile wide. Several government organizations, including the US Air Force, claimed the phenomenon was actually a series of flairs dropped during a training mission, but those who actually whiteness the Phoenix Lights are skeptical. While less documented, residents claim the same lights returned to the skies of Arizona & Nevada in 2007 and 2008.
Official Synopsis: On March 13, 1997, several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix. Three teens went into the desert shortly after the incident, hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town. They disappeared that night and were never seen again. Now, on the 20th anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition.
Phoenix Forgotten stars Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, and Chelsea Lopez.
Tagline: Based on Shocking Untold True Events
The fact that The Phoenix Lights actually were documented and reported on at length makes it the perfect topic for found footage, which inherently seeks to blur the line between fact and fiction. The film’s material meshes perfectly with actual archival footage to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable. The inclusion of actual people who were in the news in the aftermath of the Phoenix Lights, as well as actual clips from local news reports and even CNN, turns a cinematic collage into a seamless narrative. If this were still the early 2000s, I have no doubt fans and critics would laud this film as truly terrifying. It’s unfortunate the subgenre fatigue means many folks will disregard Phoenix Forgotten outright; it’s also unfortunate that almost 20 years since the popularization of found footage, producers couldn’t find any sort of innovation to match its compelling narrative.
To get specific about the found footage methods employed in Phoenix Forgotten: A birthday party in 1997 is disrupted by strange lights in the sky, followed by an eardrum-bursting squadron of F-16s scrambling after them. What follows are 2 acts that lean more towards the mockumentary side of the found footage spectrum. It has the air of a filmmaker’s exploration of personal loss with the pace and feel of a Dateline exclusive. At first, the found footage is only included sporadically, meaning it’s primarily smooth sailing for the bulk of the film’s 80-minute runtime. The entire 3rd Act, however, is completely found footage in the truest sense: Never before seen footage pulled for a corroded camera found in a storage locker. Those who get no joy in the subgenre will find these moments indistinguishable from any one of the many dozens of Blair Witch Project intimidators that inundated the horror landscape until recent years.
Original, no, but compelling: Yes! The Dateline plotline intertwined with the actual found footage actually gives viewers two narratives, from two different eras, as they seek to solve the same mystery. Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is on a quest to find out what happened to her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) who disappeared while filming his own documentary about The Phoenix Lights. Ultimately, Sophie’s conclusion will fill a painful information vacuum by revealing her brother’s fate, as well as the truth about The Phoenix Lights (and a subsequent cover). It’s not just about a search for aliens, it’s about how unresolved tragedies destroy families; it’s about how not knowing a person’s fate is in many ways worse than dealing with a death; it’s about how far a person will go to learn the truth, even if knowledge comes with emotional devastation—a potentially fatal danger.
Young documentarian and X-Files fan Josh set out to catch images of the Phoenix Lights in the weeks following the phenomenon. He’s joined by his best friend Mark (Justin Matthews) and his 18-year-old crush Ashely (Chelsea Lopez). This enthusiastic and youthful crew on a common quest gives Phoenix Forgotten a buddy-movie feel, kind of like the kids from IT or Stranger Thinks (or even The Goonies) as young adults on a more serious mission. The triangle gets surprisingly deep, as the players grow closer on professional and personal levels. Percolating jealously coincides with the most harrowing moments of the film, as internal emotions and external dangers turn the friends against each other before they are literally separated. Most found footage films never achieve the emotional depth Phoenix Forgotten managers with ease.
Phoenix Forgotten is a film that seeks to turn skeptics into potential believers (from doubting Scullies into open-minded Mulders), and while it definitely adds intrigue to those interested in The Phoenix Lights of 1997, it won’t do anything to win over detractors of found footage. There’s a brilliant money shot, but Phoenix Forgotten isn’t about fantastic confrontations with aliens, it’s about a quest for truths, both personal and intergalactic. It’s a movie for the heart as much as the mind. If you enjoy conspiracy theories, mockumentaries, and shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files (and don’t have a fierce aversion to found footage) you’ll most likely enjoy Phoenix Forgotten as much as I did. Those looking for thrills & chills & alien mayhem, however, should probably just patiently wait for Covenant on the 19th.
Phoenix Forgotten tells a great story, one with legitimate connections to real people and a documented mass UFO sighting. It will appeal more to those with a taste for procedural crime-dramas than Horror Freaks or aficionados of stylized, futuristic sci-fi. In terms of look and feel: It’s exactly what you’d expect from a found footage film. The cast is completely believable and the film’s pacing is excellent, but Phoenix Forgotten won’t appease moviegoers looking for spectacular FX or something gory to satisfy some bloodlust.