Phoenix Forgotten may be the most inconspicuous movie release this year. This film premiered on April 21st but as of opening day, Rotten Tomatoes has exactly zero reviews up for it. It opened to a little over 1,500 screens across the country and in select international markets (not exactly a “wide” release but certainly not small), and yet it’s like the movie is completely invisible. Maybe you’re heading to the movies tonight and wondering what to see. Maybe you see this title on the marquee and wonder what it’s about. Fortunately for you, I’ve seen it.
So you don’t have to.
What is the movie about?
Take The Blair Witch Project, only strip away every ounce of mystery, tension, thrills and scares. Take away all the work put into creating a clever fictional world that managed to fool a lot of people (for a time) into thinking it was real. Take away all of that, and replace it with a so-called “mystery” told both in the present day and flashback (via found-footage). Take away the gritty and uneasy camera work of Blair Witch Project (which, while occasionally nauseating, at least made sense in the context of the movie) and replace it with a docu-drama style presentation that serves no purpose other than to excuse terrible cinematography.
That’s Phoenix Forgotten. Someone saw The Blair Witch Project and said, “let’s copy that, except none of the good stuff.” It’s even more of a Blair Witch wannabe than the actual Blair Witch wannabe that came out last year; at least that one tried to do some interesting things with the genre.
The film is described as a “psychological, sci-fi horror film” but it is almost none of those things; it’s barely a film. It’s certainly not a horror film, as approximately zero scary things happen for the first hour of the ninety-minute runtime, and when the final thirty minutes of scares finally do come, they consist of (A) lights, (B) nose bleeds, and (C) screams amidst shaky camera work so you can’t see anything you’re supposed to be scared of. That’s it. That’s the climax. That’s act three. That’s what the movie was building to. Lights, Camera, Nose-bleeds.
I don’t know where the idea that it’s a “psychological horror” film came from either. That genre of movie aims to tell a story that messes with your mind as much as the characters’. My mind was not messed with here; it was utterly bored. It’s only sci-fi in the sense that people discuss the possibility of aliens and then, presumably, get kidnapped by them in the final few minutes of the picture.
Like The Blair Witch Project, Phoenix Forgotten pretends to be based on a true story, as it presents the mystery of three missing teens. Only, where The Blair Witch Project conjured up an entirely original backstory based off of the various urban legends (and Colonial history) of witches in the New England area, Phoenix Forgotten based their plot backdrop on the so-called “Phoenix Lights” incident that happened in 1997.
Here’s the biggest problem with the movie, and will probably explain why most who see it will feel “uninvested” in what happens. The mysterious Phoenix Lights are no mystery at all. The incident has been completely debunked. Here, take three minutes and watch this:
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By tethering the plot to such a well-known event in recent history, and one that has been completely stripped of any mystery, the movie’s premise falls on its face. I didn’t care what happened to the kids because I wasn’t invested in the mystery. I wasn’t invested in the mystery because it was based on a true event whose mystery has already been solved (and it was revealed to be nothing at all).
All that said, the movie might still have worked had the filmmakers either (A) took the story in a different direction than where it appeared to be going, or (B) did their own story in a quality and entertaining way. The movie’s opening-hour flaws could have been largely forgiven if the story did a head-fake for the final act, and made it not about aliens but about the air force doing something shady and hunting down the kids when they found it out. Or, they could have stuck with the alien abduction idea and just made a competent story out of it.
Instead they just remade The Blair Witch Project, only with the wide open desert instead of the claustrophobic woods, and with uncooperative townsfolk instead of the mystery and plot building residents at the beginning of The Blair Witch Project, and with aliens instead of the witch. Every difference was for the worse.
Take the aliens for example: I can buy the idea that a ghost, or a demon, or a supernatural witch with a mean-streak would terrorize, haunt and ultimately hunt down a bunch of teenagers. Those beings are easily depicted as evil and as the kind of predators that would play with their food before eating it. Aliens though? Why would aliens go about abducting people in the way this movie presents it? If you want to say that aliens fly their ship over a house and teleport someone up to their big room to be probed, I’ll buy that. That’s plausible. But why would the aliens make the kids hear voices of loved ones, and lure them away to be abducted one at a time. With nosebleeds! It’s aggressive and “scary” but only artificially. It was only scary because the movie needed it to be. It made no sense.
But that all focuses on the final act. The entire first hour of the movie is where the film really fails.
To start with the faux-documentary style is distracting and unnecessary. It would be one thing to commit to it all the way, like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, but in this case several times the movie acted like it forget it was a “documentary.” A big moody score kicks in at key moments in the film, the camera work goes from jumpy and “handheld” to professional steadicam and back again without any rhyme or reason.
The opening hour follows the investigation of the sister of one of the abductees. She introduces herself in a voice-over in the film’s opening minute, and then never does another voice-over. The movie makes one or two passing mentions early on to highlight that we’re supposed to be seeing “raw, documentary material” but the movie never justifies its style. It doesn’t help that the way the docu-style is actually filmed isn’t very good either. Everything is zoomed-in and poorly edited, making it hard to appreciate anything on a visual level. It is possible to just do a normally-filmed movie, horror or otherwise. I don’t know why found-footage has to be a thing unto itself. If there’s a story that goes with it, fine, but otherwise just make a movie.
As the opening hour progresses we follow the reporter/documentarian as she interviews people about her missing brother. Most of these are parents of the other missing kids, former policemen who helped search for him twenty years prior, and other key figures from the 1997 incident. The acting in these interview segments are a highlight of the movie. The dialogue and delivery are both very natural-sounding. If you didn’t know better you’d think these were real people genuinely reminiscing about a past event. The rest of the acting is run of the mill but those interviews were good; it’s too bad that they’re all so boring and lifeless and do nothing to give the movie any tension or drama. For the first hour of the film it really is just a documentary—no horror or thrills or suspense or tension—only it’s a documentary about a pretend mystery that was solved in real life.
Throughout the opening hour the story alternates between the present day (as the sister interviews people who helped search for her brother) and the past (as the sister watches the little footage the teens recorded while out looking for the lights). The trouble with the plot is it goes nowhere. There is no big surprise that forces you to rethink what you thought you knew. There is no big reveal that offers a new dimension to the plot or motivations. It just moves from point A to point B in the most bland and unremarkable way.
At the end of the second act, the sister recovers an old camcorder that one of the teens borrowed from the school. Inside is a tape that contains the final half-hour of the movie, which reveals what happened to them. The movie doesn’t explain how the camcorder was recovered; the sister finds it in a storage building owned by the school. Several of her interviews reveal how frustrated the police were that they never found anything to give a clue as to what happened to the teens. There was no t-shirt recovered, no bones unearthed, no anything. But when the plot needed it, all of that was tossed aside and this pivotal camera and tape is found just in time for the climactic third act to begin.
After the tape is seen (but before the audience sees it) the sister arranges an interview with the head of the nearby air force base. At the last second the military cancels the meeting and cryptically tells her “don’t let that tape get out.”
That’s an intriguing turning point, or at least it would be if anything was done with it. The potential is there for a big plot twist, but instead the film blows past it and never returns to the present again. We instead cut to the final footage and watch the kids wander in the desert, see some lights, get bloody noses and then disappear one by one. So much more could have been done with the air force but instead they were just a plot device that went nowhere like so much else of the movie.
3/10 – Phoenix Forgotten didn’t know what it wanted to be. It could have been an interesting faux-documentary/horror film if it only had better writing and more risk-taking. Instead its sits on its hands for an hour before rushing through an uninspiring conclusion to a story you’ll never care about in the first place.
Witch Alien Project