The found-footage subgenre of films seems to have reached its peak and dropped considerably from popularity over the years, however the format is still alive and well and being utilized to continue to tell stories with a more realistic and gritty tone. The latest found-footage offering for 2017, “Phoenix Forgotten” attempts to breath new life into the subgenre by tackling one of the most widely known UFO sighting in United States history, and possibly world history. However, what we get is a boring rehash of found-footage tropes that is nothing more than a tribute at best to much better films that came before it.
Set in 1997 and modern day, the film follows two related stories, one of a trio of friends who go in search of the origin of the mysterious Phoenix Lights in 1997 and the other featuring one of the trio’s sister filming a documentary twenty years later trying to unravel what happened to her brother during his search. As the film progresses the audience views the movie as if it was a documentary, seeing recorded footage from the trio as they come across the extraterrestrials that were supposedly responsible for the 1997 phenomenon.
Usually I try to balance my reviews with the good and the bad, but honestly there’s not a whole lot of redeeming factors to “Phoenix Forgotten”. Let me preface the following review with an admission that I am a huge fan of the found-footage subgenre and thus I went into “Phoenix Forgotten” with a much harsher critical eye and perspective than others probably did. Hell this film may have received a much more critical examination than almost any other movie I’ve experience this year. Still, even for the most casual of found-footage fans this is nothing we have not seen before.
“Phoenix Forgotten” is, to put is bluntly, a very boring movie. At around 87 minutes in run time, only the last 20 minutes or so are really dedicated in any way to the discovery of the alien beings while the remainder of the film sets the stage in a drawn out montage of billboard shots, newsreels, and b-roll footage that tries to set the mood, but fails in every way as it feels completely superfluous to the adventure viewers came to see.
“Phoenix Forgotten” seems to try very hard to emulate great films that helped making it’s theatrical run even remotely possible, employing similar approaches to the filming style that shone brightly in movies like “The Bay” and the iconic mother of all found-footage films “The Blair Witch Project”, but those films were able to build tension and story with simplicity whereas “Phoenix Forgotten” fails to replicate the impact that subtlety and mystery can have on the viewer. It lacks the same charm and fails to produce the same restlessness as other films and thus all we get is a short film that leans on the success of other much greater works in hopes that it can emulate, at best, the same impact in its own right. At times it’s hard to tell whether the film wants to take a slow and steady approach, or assault the senses with a relentless barrage of effects to the point where when the action finally does happen you’re not even that invested anymore.
There are a few areas I can credit “Phoenix Forgotten”. One is the acting. The trio of friends who wander out into the Phoenix desert are very well portrayed by Like Spencer, Chelsea Lopez, and Justin Matthews respectively as they seem to have great chemistry on screen and express a sense of ignorance and normality that is essential to any found-footage character to drive home the casual realism of the film. However, they get minimal screen time. Most of the film revolves around Florence Hartigan’s Sophie, who twenty years later is trying to solve her brother’s disappearance, and Hartigan fails to carry any scene on her own, and every scene she’s in does demand she carry the load because she’s pretty much the only person in those shots.
The other area I can credit this film is in its world building. Despite the dry nature of the film’s earlier segments, we do get a few glimpses of the three friends exploring the mythology behind alien sightings through history, which, as you would expect, plays into the revelations they later come to in their own search for extraterrestrial life. This is what we wanted to see, a movie full of this. But it’s not what we get. Instead we only get teases of a much greater adventure that never really plays out to its fullest.
I’ll end my review with possibly the biggest sin on this film’s premise, and the thing that annoys me to no end when it comes to a poorly done found-footage film, and that’s its disconnect from its own filming style. The 1997 portion of the film provides a classic reasoning for the trio being filmed, one of them is a wanna-be director and another is an aspiring journalist who decided to film a documentary on the origin of the Phoenix Lights. The stage is set, the story plays out, and it all makes sense. However the same cannot be said for the present day footage, which makes up the bulk of the film. Unrealistic camerawork and a forced dependence on the filming concept as Sophie’s entire life, including her interaction with her parents, is filmed for seemingly no reason at times other than to provide insight and exposition for the audience. It takes you right out of the found-footage feel of “Phoenix Forgotten”. It doesn’t feel like this happened in real life. It feels staged and almost too well produced to capture the gritty, casual feel every found-footage movie should embrace and thus betrays the style the filmmakers chose to employ.
When making these films one of the most important goals for the filmmakers should always be to stick with the format, but “Phoenix Forgotten” fails to maintain any sense of realism in its present day setting and thus does no justice to it’s subgenre by trying to force the filming style to work instead of just letting it happen.
“Phoenix Forgotten” is very appropriately named, as it will probably be forgotten in the overcrowded gaggle of found-footage and alien encounter films that have preceded and will probably succeed it in years to come. Uninspired, unoriginal, and completely out of touch with its audience and the story it would like to tell, “Phoenix Forgotten” tries to recapture the magic of more stripped down found-footage works that helped make the subgenre a cinematic staple, but falls flat on its face. In the end “Phoenix Forgotten” is nothing more than a poor attempt at baiting fans of the filming style and the legendary Phoenix Lights phenomenon into an 87 minutes waste of time that, honestly if you want to experience for a much cheaper price and with much better quality, you could probably enjoy in an independent small-time film buried in the endless pit of Nexflix found-footage knockoffs.