You might look at the previews for Phoenix Forgotten and think it owes a lot to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project—and you’d be absolutely right—but its antecedents actually date back another decade further. An obscure but well-regarded (by those who have caught it) found-footage flick called U.F.O. Abduction from 1989 begins at a little girl’s birthday party and ends with extraterrestrial terror, and so it is with Phoenix.
We’re introduced to heroine Sophie as a 6-year-old whose backyard celebration is interrupted by the appearance of the “Phoenix Lights,” a real-life phenomenon witnessed by a large number of Arizonians in 1997. Her teenage brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about the strange skybound sighting, which is officially explained as military aircraft maneuvers, and joins up with budding newscaster Ashley (Chelsea Lopez, who has the look of the young Jodie Foster) and his friend Mark (Justin Matthews) to investigate. They take a camcorder out into the desert, are never seen again and… well, by this point you know where it’s all headed.
The first 50 minutes or so of Phoenix Forgotten are structured as a fully postproduced documentary created by the grown-up Sophie (Florence Hartigan), complete with music and fancy editing tricks. (The former includes the Twilight Zone theme heard during a news-broadcast clip and The X Files music accompanying one of Josh’s home movies, indicating the deeper-than-usual pockets behind this found-footage flick, namely those of the Scott Free company.) Only after Sophie has run into the last dead end in her quest to find out what really happened to her brother does a battered old video camera surface, containing the tape that reveals all. Cue the very familiar rough-looking, handheld two-guys-and-a-girl-get-lost-in-the-darkness scenario: “Are you sure this is the right way?”, “Did you hear that?”, etc., etc.
Directed by Justin Barber and scripted by Barber and T.S. Nowlin, Phoenix Forgotten is not really badly done, it has just all been done before—many, many, many times by now. First, there’s the alien-conspiracy/disappearance part, with the concerned parents, stonewalling officials and amateur astronomers (the two of those we meet are actually funny and personable, and should have received more screen time). Then there’s the recovered-camcorder-video portion, with shaky, dark photography and increasingly panicked acting. There are a couple of stabs at subverting expectations, and at giving the amateur documentarians a little extra depth (intimations that relations between Ashley and her now-grieving parents weren’t all that great before she vanished, flirtations between Ashley and Mark that Josh begins to resent), but these are as fleeting as those Phoenix Lights themselves.
By now, so many feature films have used the vérité format to tell fictional stories that the form has become a genre unto itself, and can still offer fresh viewing experiences in the right hands. That’s not the case here, though, as the moviemakers have simply joined together two different but overworked mockumentary forms, to the point where familiarity breeds, if not necessarily contempt, then certainly ennui. Also: It’s no doubt a coincidence that Phoenix Forgotten is opening the same day as Unforgettable, and it’s entirely likely that the former title will prove truer than the latter.