Director: Justin Barber.
Cast: Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, and Florence Hartigan.
Phoenix Forgotten is a movie I never saw a trailer for, was not very well-received by critics, and did not receive a wide theatrical release. So, naturally, I was curious about it. It tells the story of a woman who’s determined to uncover the truth about what happened to her older brother, who disappeared along with two other teens back in 1997. This event occurred a few days after her sixth birthday, when she and the rest of her family witnessed strange lights appear in the night sky.
The movie was inspired by a UFO sighting that occurred in the skies over Phoenix, Arizona on March 13th, 1997, an event which was witnessed by thousands. The sighting captured the fascination of local teenager Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), the kid who witnessed it during his sister’s birthday party, and he teamed up with his friends Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark Abrahams (Justin Matthews) to investigate it further.
They get a couple of theories about what happened that night, including two astronomers who believe the lights were nothing more than flares released by F-18s from a nearby Air Force base. Unsatisfied with that explanation, they decided to hike out to the area where the lights were last seen in hopes of maybe seeing them again. And that is, of course, the last time they were ever seen.
Their case has left the authorities baffled. They found their car abandoned, but in working order. There was no signs of foul play, and the video camera that Josh was carrying around didn’t show any footage of any harm coming to them. Another question eventually surfaces: Could Josh have been carrying a second camera around with him at the time? And if so, where was it?
It should go ahead and be said that Phoenix Forgotten is a found footage movie, and director Justin Barber does interesting things visually with the 90s footage. While it was shot on modern digital cameras, Barber uses special-effects to alter the footage, and the footage was then copied to VHS tapes and re-digitized during editing. The result is a movie that legitimately looks like it was filmed on a lo-fi camera from the 90s, and costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ work helps to sell the 90s look. I was actually convinced I was watching footage that was filmed back in the 90s.
The modern day scenes follow Josh’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) as she makes a documentary about her brother’s disappearance. After interviewing loved ones of the two teens and dishonest politicians, she eventually discovers the second camera people were wondering existed, and credit Barber and co-writer T.S. Nowlin for not immediately showing us the footage from the second camera. It adds to the gripping sense of mystery Barber’s established by that point. When a general from the aforementioned Air Force Base tells her not to release the footage from the second camera, our interest is piqued. What could possibly be on that camera that the US Air Force doesn’t want to let out? More to the point, why would they trust her not to release the footage simply because they told her not to?
For the majority of the film, Phoenix Forgotten is an engaging mystery, well-acted and written, with some convincing special-effects (the lights in the night sky do have an eerie quality about them). It isn’t until we see what’s on the second camera that the movie loses its way. The shaky camera becomes head-ache inducing, the performances turn amateurish, and the visuals effects go way over-the-top (especially during the scene set within an empty mobile home out in the desert). For the brisk 80 minutes that the movie plays out, Phoenix Forgotten certainly does its job and keeps you engaged, but it’s unlikely that you’ll remember it for very long once the end credits start rolling.
Final Grade: ** ½ (out of ****)
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, profanity, teenage smoking and drinking