By Shelby Fielding (Lubbock, Texas)
Found footage films are atrocious for the most part, with plot holes and jump scares filling the screen for the entirety of the runtime. Phoenix Forgotten takes that expectation and twists them into a grounded mockumentary that follows the story of those lost in an unexplainable disappearance of three teenagers during the year of 1997. Phoenix Forgotten showcased the power that found footage filmmaking can have by combining the realism of a documentary style of filmmaking with a realistic event of fiction. With successes like Josh Trank’s Chronicle and Matt Reeves Cloverfield and of course Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project in which numerous audience members believed those events took place. Phoenix Forgotten takes the aspects that made those films successful and combines them with the creatively interesting elements that make horror movies legitimately terrifying.
Found-footage filmmaking. And, with those three words, you begin to gather a cynical notion going into to watch Justin Barber’s Phoenix Forgotten. Opening to a merely to a $1.8 million grossing weekend, Phoenix Forgotten is a film that has been swept under the rug with a grand amount of negative response from critics with a bitter score of 40% on Rotten Tomatoes. Looking into this film, I was immediately interested due to its expositional reasoning for existing, focusing on creating a story surrounding the real life event of the Phoenix lights that took place on March 13, 1997, in which a vast amount of lights appeared over the city of Phoenix, Arizona between 7:30 pm and 10:30 pm. The original response was very negative to anyone who believed that it was an extraterrestrial experience of some kind.
The governing officials treated it as a minor event of some sort, however, after about a decade former governor Fife Symington III stated, “I’m a pilot, and I know just about every machine that flies. It was bigger than anything that I’ve ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don’t know why people would ridicule it.” He would go on to say “It was enormous and inexplicable. Who knows where it came from? A lot of people saw it, and I saw it too. It was dramatic. And it couldn’t have been flares because it was too symmetrical. It had a geometric outline, a constant shape.” So least to say that controversy surrounds this subject, and Justin Barber realized this by producing a found footage film that is presented as a documentary of sorts that provides answers to these questions while hitting the permanent mark for horror films to become genre-breaking films. Horror films carry a trait that is often discovered with films that have been quoted as “great films” instead of “great horror movies.”
That trait is the expansion of a tragic event that can occur in life and bolsters it with the frightening tropes that the horror genre can provide. With the films like “The Shining” that focuses on the actual problem of a father getting lost in his work and becoming dispassionate towards his family. Stanley Kubrick took that real tragedy and broadened it with the serial killer genre of horror with Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance ending with him hunting down his family with an ax. T.S. Nowlin and Justin Barber began to take that similar idea by focusing on the palpable awful experience of having a child or a loved one disappear and never have an answer as to what happened to them. Nowlin takes that and expands on it with exceptional craftsmanship by combining this sci-fi horror genre with documentary filmmaking. This creative writing also explains the unanswered question that surrounds the found footage genre in which you ask “Who’s filming this right now?” In Phoenix Forgotten, that question is answered very quickly as well as to why the footage pre-recorded was shot as well.
The film takes the time to explain and provide intriguing reasoning as to why these events are happening, providing some strong character development of not only the characters in the present but as well as the characters in the past, with one of the main characters “John Bishop”, portrayed by Luke Spencer Roberts, being developed as someone who became obsessed with the events of the Phoenix lights and the reasoning for their appearance. Another facet of this film that I enjoyed, because what makes some horror or thriller movies so enticing is the immersive character arc that our hero battles. In which they lose themselves in whatever their investigation to the point of no return or a point that they begin to forget who they are as an individual. Films like Zodiac in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s character almost drenches himself in this case to a point where he even finds himself in an eerie prime suspect’s house in one of the most white-knuckling scenes in the last ten years.
Phoenix Forgotten realizes this and begins to capitalize on it, once again breaking the clichés that are expected with this genre. However, in the third act Phoenix Forgotten began to lose some steam with the excellent grasp of realism starting to dissipate from the screen. With two time zones occurring in this film, one in modern time and another being the footage recorded by these lost kids in the canyons of Arizona. In which Josh records all of these events due to his obsession with the truth on his 1997 camcorder that filmed one tape for eleven hours. If you know anything about camcorders you begin to realize that no camcorder ever invented could record for longer than maybe three hours, most only recorded for an hour and a half at most. This flaw along with some minuscule mistakes of the period begin to stall the intensity of the film a bit, but it reinvigorated itself when I realized that there was probably two jump scares at most in this eighty-seven minute run time. Once again Phoenix Forgotten turned all of my expectations upside down with its ingenuity and alluring screenplay and visually appealing design.
Phoenix Forgotten lands in a big way with me, providing a gripping narrative that was filmed in a believable way that not only captivated me but frightened me as well. Though its third act dwindles a bit Phoenix Forgotten is in no way an abysmal film that many critics have made it out to be. Instead, it is a refreshing perspective on the genre by breaking all of the clichés that surround found footage filmmaking and replacing those clichés with compelling characters, grounded filmmaking, and a striking screenplay that begin to arouse curiosity in real life events, which is a goal that should be desired to be accomplished by studios, due to not only its marketing aspect but also its box office opportunities. This possibility is what makes found footage filmmaking so unique; it can immerse us into a point of obsession as well. Something very few other genres can accomplish, and that’s why some filmmakers can reinvigorate a genre. Like Nolan and Disney did with comic book characters and now how James Barber did with found footage filmmaking with this underrated gem.