By Andrew Buckner
Rating: *** out of *****.
Co-writer and director Justin Barber’s full-length feature debut, Phoenix Forgotten (2017), does an admirable job of blending fact, the mass U.F.O. sighting that occurred in Arizona on March 13th, 1997 that became known as “The Phoenix Lights”, with fiction. This creative component is the search for three teens who vanish after encountering the afore-mentioned incident firsthand. Co-produced by Ridley Scott (1982’s Blade Runner), Barber’s exhibition also beautifully mirrors a classically styled documentary, at least until about the one hour mark, far better than most found footage films. This is with an ever-inventive use of interviews and news reports cleverly providing the exposition. There is also a constantly smirk-inducing sense of 1990’s nostalgia present. This is as Barber, who penned the formulaically structured script with T.S. Nowlin, frequently references The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-). Moreover, the first half constantly called to mind an extended segment of the popular cold case based television show Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2010).
Additionally, the lead performances are all credibly and charismatically etched. This is especially in line with Luke Spencer Roberts’ portrayal of our relatable, and alien obsessed, hero, Josh. Such can also be said of the high-quality depiction of his secret crush, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), and fellow journeyer Mark (Justin Matthews). The narrative also meritoriously includes a lot of circumstances, such as sudden nosebleeds, which are much in line with what those involved in real life encounters with otherworldly entities undergo. The sparsely used effects are also undeniably effective. Jay Keitel’s cinematography is superb. Congruently, Barber and Nowlin’s dialogue comes off as natural. This is a courtesy of the fine authorship of the piece. It is also a testament to the authentic fashion in which these lines are delivered.
But, this does little to mask the underwhelming sensation which sprang forth with the rolling of the end credits. This is most likely a result of the concluding sequence. Such a configuration blatantly rips off the climax of The Blair Witch Project (1999). The story, which is involving as a horror and science-fiction fusion but transparent as a mystery, is also incomplete. This is as the exertion gives us a definitive answer to what fate befell those who were lost. Yet, it fails to include a satisfactory resolve for the individual conducting the search, Sophie (Florence Hartigan). Not to mention, the affair never tops the harrowing, grainy VHS enactment of the true event, which arises during a birthday party, that it is based upon. Such is melancholy considering that this transpires within the first ten minutes of the picture.
Correspondingly, even at eighty-seven minutes in length the runtime seems overlong. This is as the first two acts, which develop characters and pace in a satisfactory, if sluggish, manner, give way to an ultimate reveal which is obvious from the start. What is just as evident is the lack of any real suspense, surprises or scares. The result is a middle of the road effort. It is one whose mileage will vary between an enjoyable, if unmemorable, experience and a hair-pulling test of patience. This is based solely on your overall fascination in the subject matter. Given that extra-terrestrial tales have always garnered my attention, I, luckily, fall into the latter category.
(PG-13). Contains language and some intense sequences.
Released exclusively in theaters on April 21st, 2017.