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Film Review: Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

SYNOPSIS:

The story of three teens who go into the desert shortly after a UFO sighting, hoping to document more of the strange events that are occurring in their town. They disappeared that night, and were never seen again. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. For the first time ever, the truth will be revealed.

REVIEW:

Director: Justin Barber
Starring: Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez, Justin Matthews, Florence Hartigan.

I’m seriously not a fan of the found footage sub genre. While I found it interesting at first, the very nature of its existence caused its downfall. After the mega success of The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, everybody and their mama’s decided that they could replicate that success with their own micro budgeted epics. Sadly they missed the entire point of what made Blair Witch so successful in the first place. Firstly, it was a pretty good film, and arguably the first of its kind. Secondly, it had an amazing pre-release publicity onslaught working in its favor. People knew about it months before its release, and were genuinely convinced that it was a true story before they actually sat down to watch it. The hundreds of found footage films released in its wake had none of those advantages.

What most of them had was a college kid with a decent camera, a few friends who couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper bag, a few six packs to get them through the weekend they spent filming their movie, and most importantly, a forest or an abandoned building where they could film for free. Mind you, some of the found footage films released in the wake of Blair Witch’s success were pretty good. The first two Paranormal Activity films come immediately to mind, as does last year’s Found Footage 3D. These films take the standard found footage tropes and, at the very least, try to expand on them ever so slightly. They also gave us characters that audiences cared about, unlike most of the characters found in the glut of found footage films we were subjected to over the past 17 years. The makers of Phoenix Forgotten have one thing that none of the other films in this sub genre have though. They have something of a pedigree, a blessing from one of the most interesting directors on the planet – Ridley Scott. That’s right, Ridley Scott is one of about a dozen producers on this film, and if Ridley thought enough about the script for this one to come on as a producer – then it can’t be all bad, can it?

Phoenix Forgotten opens with some video of a 6 year old Sophie’s (Serendipity Lilliana) birthday party in Arizona. Everyone is having a great time, but then they’re all witness to the famed “Phoenix Lights” incident of 1999, when a series of odd lights appeared in the night sky. These lights formed a pattern, moved a bit, and then seemingly flew away. Sophie’s teenage brother, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) becomes immediately fascinated by this phenomenon, and wants to find out the truth behind the mysterious lights. So he enlists the help of his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), and Mark (Justin Matthews), and the three of them head off into the into the desert with a few cans of beer, and a camcorder to hopefully record whatever was behind those strange lights. And as is pretty much the standard for these types of films – they disappear, never to be heard from again. We’re then introduced to the now adult Sophie (Florence Hartigan), who has taken it upon herself to try and find out the truth behind her brother’s disappearance, and record her findings to videotape.

The first 45 minutes or so of Phoenix Forgotten is a pretty deft combination of Sophie’s quest to find answers, and video clips of the three teenagers prepping for their excursion into the unknown. Most of these sequences work fairly well, offering the audience a chance to get to know the kids, and Sophie as well. It’s slow going for sure, but it manages to achieve a certain rhythm that makes it all work. But then, after Sophie has pretty much exhausted all of her leads (and came up empty), she discovers a battered video camera with the last footage her brother shot. Then Phoenix Forgotten squanders whatever it achieved only to fall squarely into the realm of the standard found footage tropes that you’ve seen dozens of times already. So we get a bunch of grainy shaky cam footage of three teens cheerily walking into the Arizona desert, drinking beer, hearing odd sounds, getting lost, and fumbling away in the dark as they try to find their way back to the car that they drove there in.

What kills me about this film is that I was genuinely interested in what was going on for awhile. Maybe that’s because I haven’t seen a found footage film in awhile, but writer/director Justin Barber (co-written with T.S. Nowlin) had something good going on here for awhile. But then I realized that it’s pretty much the same thing that I’d seen so many times before. Everything that happens in this film has been done before, literally hundreds of times actually. The situations might have changed, but this is pretty much the standard found footage film that has a slightly bigger budget because of Ridley Scott’s involvement with it. The script also commits the egregious error of forgetting all about adult Sophie about 3/4 of the way through the film. Once she finds that video camera, the rest of the film is spent following the teens along on their doomed quest for knowledge. This really stinks, because Sophie’s story is one I wanted to know more about. Honestly, do any of you think you won’t know what happens to the kids once you start watching this film? Of course you will, because you’ve seen it all before. But Sophie’s story had some meat on its bones, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of it.

The performances here are all good, if very familiar. Special kudos must go out to Chelsea Lopez as Ashley, and Florence Hartigan as adult Sophie. Lopez especially has a fresh faced innocence that really works for her character. All technical aspects of the film are good enough, but don’t aspire to look any better than the standard found footage film. Ultimately, Phoenix Forgotten squanders a pretty interesting set up, and decides instead to waste our time with the standard found footage tropes. It offers nothing new, or innovative to the sub genre, it just wallows in mediocrity.

Sadly, I think the title eerily prophetic of Phoenix Forgotten’s eventual fate. You’ll forget all about it as soon as you exit the theater.

Phoenix Forgotten – One out of five shrouds.

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