A film review by Craig J. Koban April 30, 2017


2017, PG-13, 96 mins.


Florence Hartigan as Sophie  /  Chelsea Lopez as Ashley  /  Justin Matthews as Mark  /  Luke Spencer Roberts as Josh 


Directed by Justin BarberWritten by Barber and T.S. Nowlin 



My overall appetite for found footage films has been seriously waning over the years, and very few recent examples (like PROJECT ALMANAC and INTO THE STORM) haven't given me any serious reason to renew my past enthusiasm for this tired and rapidly running out of gas genre.  

PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is yet another example of the found footage thriller that appropriates most of its aesthetic accouterments (and overall narrative from one very famous one) without really doing anything fresh or revitalizing.  Instead of intrepidly and creatively taking a genre on critical life support and injecting some much needed life into it, the makers of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN are simply regurgitating stale and overused troupes. 

But the core premise of the film is indeed compelling and worthy of exploration.  PHOENIX FORGOTTEN looks to past headlines for inspiration in the form of a massive UFO sighting over Phoenix on March 13, 1997, during which time its citizens - and even the state Governor - all reported witnessing a very bizarre formation of lights that peppered the sky...that then abruptly vanished.  Witnesses further claimed that the lights emanated no sound, but created a strange V-shape in the sky that could not be easily attributed to natural phenomena.  Predictably, the Air Force downplayed the incident, citing the lights as flares dropped by their aircraft.  Even the Governor at the time laughed at the prospect of the lights having an alien origin, which he intriguingly retracted years later and described them as "otherworldly." 




All of this serves as an expository preamble to the basic narrative thrust of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN, which actually contains two faux documentaries for the price of one.  The first film within the film concerns some very inquisitive teenagers - Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), Mark (Justin Matthews) and Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) - that, in 1997, refused to believe that the "Phoenix Lights" were anything but extra-terrestrial in origin.  They decided to pool their amateur low budget filmmaking talents and resources together to shoot a documentary about them journeying into the desert to get some much needed answers.  

They vanished and were never heard from again.   

Now, the second fake doc within the film takes place in the present and concerns Josh's little sister Sophie (now an adult, played by Florence Hartigan) that has been haunted by the taped footage left behind by her sibling and his friends, which barely and frustratingly failed to scratch the surface of what happened to them back in 1997.  Fuelled by a burning desire to get some closure about her brother's mysterious disappearance and probable death, Sophie returns home to shoot her very own doc about Josh and his missing friends by interviewing family members, former school teachers, and even the military.  The truth, as Agent Mulder always said, is out there, and predictably - and all too conveniently - Sophie uncovers the eerie truth of what transpired on that fateful evening 20 years ago that could rattle everyone's perceptions of whether or not we are indeed alone in the universe. 

There are a few things that do work in PHOENIX FORGOTTEN's favor, the first of which being the thanklessly strong performances by the trio of teen actors that make up the 1997 found footage.  Genre films like this are made or broken on the strength of the actors and their collective abilities to make us believe that we're watching real people interact awkwardly with one another on camera and not just actors pathetically trying to come off as authentic people.  The young performers in question have a palpable lived-in chemistry that works in the film's favor (especially Chelsea Lopez, who displays a commendable level of unforced naturalness on camera).  PHOENIX FORGOTTEN also boosts fairly involving opening sections that mixes faux news reports of the teens disappearance with Sophie's emotionally troubling journey of re-opening old family wounds in search for the truth.  On a level of blending fact and fiction, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN gets off to a modestly engrossing start and shows great promise.  The mystery of surrounding the vanishing of the adolescent UFO devotees provides for a solid hook for the film, which is never dull as a result. 

Here's the problem, though, with PHOENIX FORGOTTEN: This movie is woefully derivative to its very core.  Its central story arc of three amateur filmmakers that obsess over their potential supernatural/alien subject matter that journey into a desolate and unpopulated area in the middle of the night completely segregated from civilization, only then to disappear...follows the plot blueprint of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in meticulous, if not distracting, ways.  Substitute in aliens, spaceships and the desert for witches and the forest and what we're essentially left with is another BLAIR WITCH copycat that tries very little to sway away from that film's formulas.  All of the competently rendered performances that this film contains is all for naught when the overall follow-through here reeks of overt mimicry to a film that came out nearly two decades ago...and one that has cast an unforgiving shadow on all other found footage films in its wake. 

PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is also stylistically intolerable at times to simply watch.  That's not a total knock at first-time director Justin Barber, who does generate ample suspense and creates a definitive and undulating sensation of dread in a few key scenes.  No, the real issue here is that the fake footage shot by the teens (in accurate era specific grainy and hazy camcorder stock) is a visual nightmare at times to endure on the big screen.  This has to be the shakiest shaky cam found footage film I've ever seen; the first person Hi8 footage shot by the late 90's teens is so hyper aggressively chaotic, unhinged, and, well, shaky that I grew physical disoriented and fatigued while trying to watch it.  Props need to be given to capturing the proper look and feel of 1990's analogue video formats, but the way the camera jerks up, down, side to side, and seemingly everywhere makes many sequences in PHOENIX FORGOTTEN an indecipherable mess.  Movies rarely make me feel ill...but this one came awfully close. 

And don't get me started on one cockamamie plot development late in the film that involves the miraculous reappearance of a lost and nearly destroyed camcorder that contains a shockingly well preserved tape inside.  Equally head shaking is how a camera like this was returned to where it was without anyone noticing despite the combined efforts of the local police working in concert with the federal government and military in doing an exhaustive search of the missing teens.  PHOENIX FORGOTTEN frankly posed far too many logic defying questions late in its narrative, so much so that the whole artificial reality that it was trying to conjure up begins to implode in on itself due to contrived scripting.  By the time the film reaches a boiling point and does show what happened to those teens I found it very hard to give a damn. 

PHOENIX FORGOTTEN was produced by Ridley Scott, no stranger to alien themed films, as well as T.S. Nowlin and Wes Bowl, the writer/director tandem behind the underrated THE MAZE RUNNER.  Those names plastered on the advertising for this film peaked my interests going in, but PHOENIX FORGOTTEN can't ultimately safe itself from being another disposable found footage entry that lacks innovation.   The Phoenix Lights phenomenon is a contagiously enthralling subject that would make for a superb real documentary.  PHOENIX FORGOTTEN squanders its own potential by drowning itself in cinema verite clichés, which only further proves that the found footage genre is one that really needs to be put out to pasture.  


  H O M E