Film Review: “Phoenix Forgotten” — Retro Science Fiction

If you have a hankering for a new “found-footage” film, then Phoenix Forgotten will feed your retro-appetite.

Phoenix Forgotten directed by Justin Barber. Screening at AMC Loews Boston Common.

A startling moment from "Phoenix Forgotten."

A startling moment from “Phoenix Forgotten.”

By Paul Dervis

The holy grail of this type of film, the documentary style sci-if thriller, has to be The Blair Witch Project. Oh so popular about a decade ago. Director Ridley Scott, acting as a producer, has attempted to bring the once chic genre back with Phoenix Forgotten. This cinéma vérité, hand-held camera movie has a couple of things going for it … it examines the most infamous UFO sighting in American history, and the acting is uniformly performed in an amateurish style … and that is not meant to be an insult.

A reminder: in March of 1997 countless thousands of folks in Phoenix, Arizona looked into the night sky and witnessed what appeared to be seven still headlights towering over the city … the mysterious phenomenon then disappeared in a flash. It became celebrated as ‘the Phoenix light.’ There was enormous conjecture about what happened. Many speculated that it was some sort of hush-hush US military maneuver. But the masses thought it was a visit from another planet.

And into forgotten folklore it went.

That is, until Justin Barber, in his directorial debut, decided to tap into the strange happening. And for the first hour of the film he has a real handle on the situation’s tension. Co-writing the piece with T. S, Nowlin (The Maze Runner), Barber keeps the story moving along with a tantalizing look at the frustrations that the night generated.

The last half hour is a different matter.

Sophie returns to Phoenix on the twentieth anniversary of the event; her intention is to make a documentary of that horrifying week as well as to help her mother clear out Sophie’s childhood home. This occasion has special, tragic meaning to her family. Sophie’s brother, Josh, disappeared while attempting to make a home movie of the extraterrestrial (?) events. His body, along with two of his mates, was never found.

The structure of the first sixty minutes of the film is impressive. It’s balanced between the sad lives of the people left behind (Josh’s mother and father could not hold the family together; now they can’t even speak to each other), interviews with authorities on the UFO phenomenon, and the memories of law enforcement figures who fruitlessly attempted to find the three teenage friends. Interspersed with these moments is raw footage that the kids left behind. And a touching home movie of Sophie’s sixth birthday party, a celebration that was going on when the traumatic sighting occurred.

After reaching numerous dead ends and being stonewalled by police, Sophie gives up on her investigations, It is then that a worker at their old high school finds a camcorder that had been returned in a storage closet. It contains the footage of her brother’s last night on earth.

This recording makes up the last half hour of the film. Sophie disappears, alas, from Phoenix Forgotten, and that is a shame. Florence Hartigan, a newcomer to feature films, is far and away the best thing in this story. Her performance is a deft mixture of graceful young woman on a mission and pained sister of beloved Josh. She is always present in her quest, yet masterly displays the internal angst created by unanswered questions.

The last thirty minutes are a hodge-podge of the mundane and the frightening, all delivered in the arcane, gritty images of a camera long discarded. This is where the film becomes a variation on The Blair Witch Project. Not that it didn’t create its own brand of suspense. The building fear of the three young kids is intense and palpable … but oh, so predicable as well. The final act didn’t ruin the movie. But it made it a different movie.

If you have a hankering for a new “found-footage” film, then Phoenix Forgotten will feed your retro-appetite. More significant, if you want to see the kick off point for a talented actress’s career, then the real sighting here is Florence Hartigan.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years.

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