Derivative scares are surrounded by boring filler and exposition in Phoenix Forgotten, a feature debut by graphic artist Justin Barber that’s also been stupefyingly blessed by producer Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian).
The film is the latest entry in “found footage”, and the filmmakers promise nostalgic throwbacks through this late-90s time capsule, but Phoenix Forgotten is a poorly cobbled collection of “video evidence” recorded in 1997 and a modern “documentary” about the missing people on those tapes.
The doc is being conceived by Sophie (Florence Hartigan), who lost her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) to an unknown fatal accident. Young memories of Sophie and Josh witnessing an infamous freak sighting of random glowing in the sky – the Phoenix Lights – have made the uncompromising amateur filmmaker connect the dots between this incident and Josh’s disappearance. When Sophie splices in old footage of her brother, movie goers receive extended takes of the search recorded by Josh and friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews) as they search intently for clues to extra-terrestrial life before their demise.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the pioneers of this found footage sub-genre, and it becomes a bit tiring when critics automatically start accusing similar films of copying it. I’ve been guilty of the comparison in the past, but I’ve been sharp enough to see how the stronger examples find a way to stand on their own (Germany’s UFO: It Is Here). Then again, I can understand the jaded criticisms too. It’s hard to give filmmakers the benefit of the doubt when everything about TBWP is copied-and-pasted. Such is the case for Phoenix Forgotten, a missed opportunity that literally uses the same scary situations yet filters them through aggressive visual glitches to throw the audience off their scent. Meanwhile, Sophie’s modern-day investigation isn’t thrilling either since co-writers Barber and T.S. Nowlin recycle predictable breakthroughs and reactions from those who don’t want to drudge up Josh’s case again.
Phoenix Forgotten is, at least, committed to its time period and its need to freak out its viewers. That determination, however, blinds the film from its own mediocrity.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie