It may not be wholly revolutionary in both its approach and the material it explores, but Phoenix Forgotten was a lot more fun than a lot of folks might give it credit for, and it completely took me back to my high school days of being obsessed with The X-Files, science fiction, and the question of whether or not we are truly alone in this universe. Phoenix Forgotten does an admirable job of blending fact and fiction, and while there was one plot point that I felt was a little “too convenient,” overall, co-writer/director Justin Barber crafts an intriguing sci-fi-fueled mystery that hooked me from the very beginning. It may not make my list of favorite movies from this year, but Phoenix Forgotten was still an entertaining time nonetheless.
Phoenix Forgotten first introduces us to a high schooler named Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), who is shooting a home video for his kid sister Sophie’s birthday in 1997 on the very night that the “Phoenix Lights” phenomenon occurs, and his camera catches the whole bewildering affair. From there, we head back to the modern day nearly 20 years later, where we follow Sophie, who is on a quest for the truth, as her brother and two of his friends—Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews)—all went missing just a few days after the mysterious appearance in the Phoenix skies. The trio had set out to investigate the possible UFO encounter in the desert and were never heard from again, an event that changed the lives of their friends and family, as well as the community at large. Now it’s up to Sophie to see if she can dig up any kind of information that might provide her with some answers.
There will be a lot of comparisons made between Phoenix Forgotten and The Blair Witch Project (even Barber referenced it during our interview earlier this week), and I’ll be the first to admit that the former does certainly owe a lot to the latter. But, to me, Phoenix felt like something right out of an early season of The X-Files, and that just made it all the more endearing to me. Creating a “found footage” movie is hardly a revelatory approach in the world of low-budget, high-ambition filmmaking, but the thing about Phoenix Forgotten is that Barber’s efforts here feel akin to a lot of the alien-themed TV documentaries that were all the rage in the ’90s, like the Sightings series or Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction (which was much more sensationalized than Barber’s approach).
The performances in Phoenix Forgotten are all solid, but Lopez ends up being the clear standout, as she makes for an engaging subject to follow (we learn that Josh has a crush on his classmate, so we spend a good amount of time with the camera focused squarely on her). That being said, we end up losing the character of Josh throughout most of Phoenix Forgotten, as he plays cameraman, and I just felt like we needed more of him to make a deeper connection with his character.
Barber goes to great lengths to make Phoenix Forgotten feel wholly authentic for its time, and I always appreciate when a director puts that much effort into making sure those kinds of details feel in line with whatever era they are revisiting. And while I do think the pacing could have been a bit better (there’s a good 20 minutes during the film’s second act where it feels like the story spins its wheels a bit), when the finale of Phoenix Forgotten finally kicks in, Barber and co-writer T.S. Nowlin just go for broke, and the results are pretty damned fun if you’re an old-school sci-fi geek like me.
I know there’s a bit of fatigue when it comes to docu-style genre films as of late, and believe me, I totally understand that feeling 100%. I guess that’s why Phoenix Forgotten ended up surprising me as much as it did, because it didn’t feel like it was trying to ape some of its theatrical peers, but was more in line with a lot of the sci-fi television programs and specials that came out during the 1990s. And if you’re into projects of that ilk, you may enjoy what Phoenix Forgotten has to offer, because Barber’s fictional take on the “Phoenix Lights” phenomenon certainly hit all those buttons for me.
Movie Score: 3/5