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The found footage film genre simply won’t die, no matter the steady stream of box office duds that get released year after year. The ones that have worked have either been the originators or have at least found a way to innovate. Few do though, most trapped by the constricting premise, unable to do anything original. Now comes Phoenix Forgotten, an intriguing science fiction film with a great setup and start that does some interesting things with the tropes but ultimately suffers for it.
In the present day, Sophie (Florence Hartigan) arrives back in her hometown of Phoenix to document the disappearance of her older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), who, in 1997, along with friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews) were investigating a UFO sighting. Talking with friends, family, and many others involved with the mystery – including experts and authorities – she becomes drawn emotionally into the past, but when Josh’s lost camera turns up, she learn of the trio’s last few hours in the desert and a terrifying truth.
Directed and co-written by Justin Barber (and listing Ridley Scott as a producer), Phoenix Forgotten at least reaches for authenticity as it uses the very real sightings of lights in March of 1997. Using actual footage mixed with mostly fictional accounts, the story does lend itself to some moments of legitimacy. What Barber does well is invest us emotionally early into the story, avoiding many of the clichés the genre has become mired in, including jump scares. It makes solid connections to the family and characters as well, and builds a decent amount of suspense as it intertwines the past and present.
That accounts for the first half, which is far superior as the remainder of the film focuses almost entirely on the second footage, which documents the three teens as they scout about the desert in search of the truth. With the first half clearly establishing the UFO premise, the second half meanders as we watch side plots of blossoming romance and jealousy, politics, beers, and pictographs before they naturally get lost in the dark, wondering about in circles and hearing strange noises, something we’ve seen before. Many times.
The problem is the familiarity and as with almost all found footage films released these days, feels like a late comer. The genre taps into our baser fears with limited lighting and herky-jerky movements, but loses much of its momentum and interest as the story shifts from Sophie’s investigation into simply watching what happened. The actors do a good job, mostly convincing as best they can with Lopez especially a standout, but the ending is the larger let down, as it makes a bold visual statement that makes clear a very specific thing but then adds a disclaimer, supposedly added by Sophia that purports something else, attempting to keep it ambiguous.
Phoenix Forgotten is a better than average found footage film, built mostly on his great start, which is where it should have stayed, but is nonetheless, considering the genre, a fairly entertaining experience, especially for fans of such.
Movie description: Phoenix Forgotten is 2017 sci-fi horror film about the final hours of three teenagers who disappeared in the wake of mysterious lights appearing above Phoenix, Arizona.
Director(s): Justin Barber
Actor(s): Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez