Four scientists craft a machine to reanimate deceased organisms.
Setting up a makeshift laboratory in a garage, a group of scientists fail to heed the warnings laid out in Mary Shelley’s seminal Frankenstein and work together to try and crack the secret of resurrection.
Whilst some amongst you may be thinking there’s potential here for Flatliners or Re-Animator retread, where a frazzle haired scientist with an overpowering god complex bumps off his colleagues in a range of horrific ‘accidents’ in the hopes of unearthing the secrets of life after death. Well, I’m sorry but you’re going to be very disappointed.
The Phoenix Project wants you to take it as a very serious, very weighty film about the complications of man’s desire to rule over that which they must not. Focusing more on the scientists than the actual science, the film sees the men opening up to each other as their experiments expand from resuscitating dead insects and move towards bigger goals.
It’s clear director and writer Tyler Graham Pavey is working with a low budget. This is also his first stab at directing a feature length film and, when all is said and done, the film looks great regardless. The opening credits resonate as the team constructs what will eventually become ‘Project Phoenix’. In addition, I know that despite the film’s short running time, the film was a labor of love for everyone involved, taking more than a year and only a few grand to get it out the door. However, sometimes we have to distill the art from the effort. And unfortunately, The Phoenix Project does not withstand close scrutiny.
But let’s keep it positive to begin with. In a way, The Phoenix Project is a lot like Glengarry Glen Ross. As the scientists fumble and mumble their way to their goal – which is admittedly a bit weightier than managing to get a hold of the Glengarry leads – each man unpacks their personal baggage, exposing their desires and their reasoning to be part of scientific history in the process. A lot of the time these moments of dialogue are almost poetic as they bare their souls, but then swerve into a surreal humoristic bent.
Take the moment when scientist Amps confesses his full name is Ampersand. When questioned about it by his colleagues, he tells them the tale of how his name was given to him by parents who saw his birth as a betrayal to their desire for a family of two boys and a girl. Being the third boy, he was given the logogram-based Christian name. See, melodrama to absurdum in under 60 seconds.
However, unlike the aforementioned Mamet play, The Phoenix Project struggles to engage with its audience. Any interest that can be harvested from the plot is unceremoniously crushed beneath the collective weight of everyone’s furrowed brow. There is nothing wrong with an intelligent, well-paced film that justifies its slow burn with emotional investment in its main characters. However, The Phoenix Project is, to me, not that film.
Its pace is slow to the point of standing still. Emotional investment is boiled down to the cast sharing meaningful glances at each other, whilst talking endlessly about the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Tension does come in the final act then when it’s discovered that one amongst them has been lying about where the group’s funding comes from. Elsewhere, the revelation of a dead sister also threatens to tear apart the group and close down the project. Unfortunately, rather than stoking a fire, and getting everyone riled up to create some sort of dramatic conflict, it just seems to fizzle out. This seems to sum up pretty much like everything in The Phoenix Project. Whilst the intentions are good, it just doesn’t seem to gel very well.