When it comes to found footage films, many are nothing short of forgetful but when it comes to UFOs, conspiracy theories, and the terror of true human drama, 2017’s alien phenomena Phoenix Forgotten is worth remembering. Our ability to record moments of time, and share those moments, are almost instantaneous. Back in the 90’s, that technology may not have been as quick, but it was sure available. Unidentified lights from floating crafts are not a new topic when it comes to the possibility of life on another planet, neither is the viral sensations that accompany the records of their trips to Earth.
People view the lack of explanation for extraterrestrial existence in different ways. It’s simultaneously frustrating, captivating, and frightening to think so hard about something we know nothing about. As we look at these videos, many we safely presume to be hoaxes, we can’t help but wonder, speculate, and further ask ourselves the scary questions: What is going on up there? Do they come in peace? What do they want from us? Phoenix Forgotten might not answer those questions for us, but it gets an audience as close to the record as comfort may allow.
“Phoenix Forgotten combines its found footage components with fictitious documentary features to craft a confident study at a time when the subgenre was exhausted.“
Starring Florence Hartigan (To Our Last Death), Chelsea Lopez (Are We Not Cats), Luke Spencer Roberts (Fear The Walking Dead), Justin Matthews (Major Crimes), Clint Jordan (The Rage: Carrie 2), Jeanine Jackson (The Craft), and Matt Biedel (Altered Carbon), Phoenix Forgotten begins on the night of March 13, 1997, (fitting, no?) when “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.” When Josh, Mark, and Ashley go missing, their disappearances hit the headlines, but not long after the three are sadly, long forgotten by modern civilization. Remembered only in the minds and hearts of their loved ones, Josh’s sister, Sophie, now an adult herself, goes searching for the answers regarding the circumstances that caused her brother and his friends to vanish. With a story co-written by T.S. Nowlin (The Maze Runner) and debut director Justin Barber (Beginners) and produced by Ridley Scott (Alien), Phoenix Forgotten dares the truth to be told.
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Found footage is one of the more volatile narrative representations, often catching negative criticism for being low-quality or unrealistic, among other things. However, when utilized with more natural intention and a direct approach, it’s an effective resource to portray the unexplained. Phoenix Forgotten combines its found footage components with fictitious documentary features to craft a confident study at a time when the subgenre was exhausted. The compilation of personal interviews, testimonies, and variety of emotions build a strong case for authentic mystery. Expertly creating tension, Barber focuses on both voyeurism and devastation in intriguing fashion to journey through an isolated case of a sighting in the sky that has tremendous ripple effects. Ranging from heartwarming to gut-wrenching and humorous to frightening, Phoenix Forgotten proves to be an exceptional execution boasting both skilled digital and practical effects as well as performances.
While Phoenix Forgotten does not follow a conventionally linear storyline, the two related stories that eventually meet follow realistic characters and reactions. From the missing teenagers who witness the extraterrestrial lights in the sky to government agents to local astronomers and debunkers as well as native experts to complex parents, the strange circumstances at hand manage to reach a number of characters that fulfill Barber’s film with valuable content. Theories, explanations, answers, and even logic weave through the recovered footage drawing in the audience’s attention, inviting our own thoughts on the existence of “star people”. Though limited because of the documentary factual nature, the dynamics between the teens and families, as well as the community and the authorities, are all relative with a major factor of reality in the face of an unbelievable situation. A purposeful frustrating tone derived from evidence and hoaxes, obsession, and desperation drive a really touching characterization.
I won’t lie, Phoenix Forgotten takes a little while to really get started following the first exhilarating footage of the light strike. Like the great effective horror themed mockumentaries The Blair Witch Project and Lake Mungo, it does not exactly qualify as slow burn territory, but rather a more formal account of the players and spectators involved. In an effort to build interest and engagement, the slower pace and focus on information and events allow viewers to build a relationship with the characters making the unsettling ending just that much more effective. Josh’s daring, but innocent adventure towards the the discovery of the lights he filmed during his younger sister’s birthday celebration, accompanied by his charismatic friends, Ashley and Mark, turns into a strange case in search of the truth in the name of curiosity. By the second strike, it’s hard not to be invested in a story connected to so much movement and variety. The sections of the documentary may hinge on discovery and desperation within a town resting quaintly on flatlands, but it is a an exploration that bends evenly within the hidden corners that go unnoticed.
The city of Phoenix in Arizona plays a subtle role in the void of explanation when it comes to the extraterrestrial touchdown. Phoenix Forgotten is elongated by multiple shots of the vast scenery, that may appear to serve documentary format, but actually emphasize the isolation of not only the resources, but also the desperation. The imagery itself illustrates a setting that looks like it is so much, but is actually so little in the macrocosm of life. Speculations as to the teens’ disappearance run the gamut from relationship issues to foul play by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The controversy revolving around the events rise and fall with motions, public figures alter their stories according to their platform, and stories are buried to keep public emotional reactions and panic under control. The meaning in Phoenix Forgotten is not contrived, something that weighs down so many modern found footage flicks due to lack of discipline. In this narrative, people naturally move on and resources are exhausted, turning the real horror on average people who are left helpless and hopeless after an unknown phenomenon takes place. That is, until a major breakthrough hits.
Phoenix Forgotten is really broken into two parts, Sophie’s documentary and the teenagers’ lost tape. Sophie’s precarious project carries the story from the beginning through to the second act. The culmination of the film all changes when a second tape is recovered and the fate of Josh, Ashley, and Mark is revealed. It’s a refreshing move, one that comes just in time after all of the commentary sets up viewers with enough history, and their own curiosity, to see it through to the end. Viewers are suddenly placed in a more applicable mode of cinema that leaves just enough room for authenticity, but also incorporates substantial nuance. Apache Petroglyphs brilliantly enforce the ripple of effects like those seen in the water, highlighting the effects of effects. When they are unable to find their way back after some dangerous encounters, creepy cavern carvings, noises, and foreign whirling sounds around them they move from potential pieces of evidence to articles of impending doom.
There is an instant change in the format and thus a significant change in the atmosphere by the time the final act comes into play, which is not a feat easily executed in under an hour. For all of the perceived lag time in its short hour and a half runtime, Phoenix Forgotten makes up for in its last fifteen minutes. The graphics are fairly impressive as the three teenagers attempt to evade the trouble they’ve stumbled upon. Depending on your threshold as a viewer, it could prove to be a fairly surprising visual. You’re given enough imagery to comprehend their fates and enough background to feel bad for them as characters with an expected turnout that is pretty upsetting. By the time the credits role you may have more questions that you ever began with, but it’s close enough to satisfaction than any found footage film to hit the late millennium could produce.
“Phoenix Forgotten proves to be an exceptional execution boasting both skilled digital and practical effects as well as performances.”
Justin Barber’s Phoenix Forgotten might just be another UFO conspiracy tape broadcast following the bad decisions of young onlookers obsessed with uncovering something in their quiet hometown, but if you revisit it or are witnessing it for the first time, you may just see more to it. Marrying sci-fi affairs to emotional human relations makes Sophie’s story about Josh’s story a worthy addition to the horror genre’s collection of alien evidence, faux or forbidden. This perplexing hunt for lights in the skies turned rich drama commentary is gripping, made with heart, and is extremely decent for documentary-styled found footage. Eerily enough, the search for the truth continues.
Phoenix Forgotten is currently streaming on Hulu. Are you a fan of this 2017 extraterrestrial found footage mockumentary? What are your thoughts on Phoenix Forgotten? Would you dare to find the truth? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!