“Phoenix Forgotten” is a found footage film written by T.S. Nowlin, directed by Justin Barber, and produced by Ridley Scott. The film follows a documentary filmmaker who finds lost footage of her brother who went missing while investigating the Phoenix Lights incident some twenty years earlier.
On March 13, 1997, thousands of people reported seeing a series of lights flying in formation over the city of Phoenix, Arizona—an event now referred to as the Phoenix Lights. Ridley Scott’s latest production is a fictionalized found footage account of what might have actually happened on that spring evening, twenty years ago.
Phoenix Forgotten is destined to cast a new light on the Phoenix Lights. In short, the film is a mashup of Blair Witch and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To find out why, keep reading!
Phoenix Forgotten is a mashup of Blair Witch and Close Encounters
The film opens in 1997, where we are introduced to Josh, a high school student with a penchant for filmmaking. Josh is filming the birthday party of his younger sister Sophie who just turned six. The party continues through sundown when suddenly everyone sees strange lights floating on the horizon. Josh feverishly trains his camera on the sky, filming what is now known as the famous Phoenix Lights footage.
From here the film transitions to present day where we are introduced to an adult Sophie, who is filming a documentary investigation about her brother Josh who disappeared days after the Phoenix Lights incident. The opening birthday party scene of Phoenix Forgotten is actually the opening footage to Sophie’s documentary.
Sophie is on a mission to uncover the truth behind Josh’s disappearance. She compiles old footage filmed by Josh, accompanied by news footage and police evidence from the official investigation. Sophie films interviews of family members, police officials, and anyone who could shed light on the tragic events of 1997. Will Sophie’s obsession to find closure as to the whereabouts of her missing brother leads her down the same ill-fated path? The footage will reveal the truth.
The Phoenix Lights: Separating Fact from Fiction
Before diving into our review, we thought it would benefit our readers to discuss the actual Phoenix Lights incident. The Phoenix Lights is a real UFO sighting that took place on March 13, 1997. To this date, the Phoenix Lights stands as the most widely seen mass UFO sighting in US history. The popularity of this seminal event is only surpassed by the legendary Roswell UFO crash in 1947.
Three found footage films were made about the Phoenix Lights in a three-year window.
Similar to the Roswell UFO crash, the notoriety of the Phoenix Lights incident has attracted the attention of media, documentarians, and, of course, Hollywood. Setting aside the countless news stories and documentaries covering the mysterious events that unfolded on that spring evening, Hollywood set its eyes on the Phoenix Lights on many occasions, releasing numerous fictionalized accounts depicting what might have actually happened that evening.
Even more amazing, three found footage films were made about the Phoenix Lights in a three-year window in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Phoenix Incident was released in 2015, followed by The Phoenix Tapes’ 97 in 2016, and finally, Phoenix Forgotten in 2017.
Click here to Lean More About All 3 Phoenix Lights Found Footage Films!
Eyewitnesses to the historic event claim that the Phoenix Lights was an alien spacecraft the size of several football fields. Meanwhile, many experts claim the Phoenix Lights were nothing more than illumination flares dropped from aircraft during a military exercise. Yet, still, countless ufologists and experts to this day remain uncertain as to what actually happened that evening, and are still open to the possibility that the event was an actual alien visitation. One thing is for certain, the Phoenix Lights has sparked the imagination of ufologists, believers, skeptics, and most assuredly, Hollywood filmmakers!
Ridley Scott: Finding Success in Found Footage
With an average of over fifty new releases each year, found footage (or shaky cam) films are booming in the streaming video market. However, the same success cannot be said for recent found footage film theatrical releases.
The conclusion of the Blumhouse Productions Paranormal Activity Franchise in 2015 and Night M Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015) marked the end of an eight-year stretch of Hollywood blockbuster found footage theatrical releases. Since 2015, very few found footage films have had a theatrical release, and of those, even fewer have enjoyed what the industry would consider financial successes.
If the team behind Phoenix Forgotten can hit all the right notes, the film has the potential to jumpstart a new wave of found footage theatrical releases.
2016 saw the theatrical release of the found footage film Blair Witch, the Lionsgate sequel to the classic The Blair Witch Project (1999). The Blair Witch sequel was shrouded in secrecy and unveiled to the public as a surprise months before the film’s release. Unfortunately, the film struggled to produce at the box office.
The found footage genre is as strong as it has ever been, and continues to mature and strengthen each year. However, uncertain box office returns have the industry rightfully standoffish when it comes to new theatrical releases of this polarizing genre. For this reason, we were thrilled to hear that Ridley Scott and Scott Free Productions were backing the nationwide release of Phoenix Forgotten. If the team behind Phoenix Forgotten can hit all the right notes, the film has the potential to jumpstart a new wave of found footage theatrical releases. Next, we’ll discuss how Phoenix Forgotten stands up to our critique.
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography is a measure of how well a film mimics the look of actual found footage. To this end, Phoenix Forgotten succeeds on all levels.
Phoenix Forgotten takes place in two distinct time periods, 1997 and present day. Unlike a traditional narrative film, the year the story takes place is a critical consideration for a director. The visual quality of the footage must match the video equipment that was available at the time the film was supposed to be shot. Failing to meet this basic requirement can destroy the illusion of reality.
Phoenix Forgotten painstakingly replicates footage that looks and feels like it was shot in 1997. In an exclusive interview with Found Footage Critic, director Justin Barber said that it wasn’t practical to film the 1997 scenes using actual video cameras from the 1990s. In describing the video camera used to film the 1997 scenes, Justin Barber said “It’s a small Sony camcorder that shoots 1080 HD, but the weight and size make the motion of the frame like a kid holding a camcorder. . . We also shot at the framerate that you would have shot at in 1997.”
The 1997 footage looks like actual video tapes that were recovered from some long forgotten event.
When asked how the 1997 footage shot with a modern HD camera was made to look old, director Justin Barber replied, “We washed it all to VHS tape, re-ingested it, and put it back in the timeline. . . In the end, you still see an image that was originally HD video, and it’s washed to actual VHS tape. It’s not 100% authentic, but for the average viewer, it’s pretty cool looking.”
The found footage from 1997 is appropriately presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio that fits the almost square shape of older tube televisions. Further, the older footage appropriately has washed-out color and analog defects expected of 1990s-era video cameras. In contrast, the modern day footage is presented in 16:9 aspect ratio (widescreen), in full HD.
It’s no spoiler to say that, yes, Phoenix Forgotten has UFOs. In fact, the film is inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The camerawork filmed during the 1997 footage looks wholly realistic. The special effects used in these scenes blends seamlessly with the footage, never coming across as too Hollywood or laden with CGI. The 1997 footage looks like actual video tapes that were recovered from some long forgotten event.
The filming reason gauges whether the reasons the characters are filming makes sense in the context of the story. Found footage films that do not offer plausible reasons as to why the characters are filming run the risk of alienating viewers. Phoenix Forgotten uses a variety of exceptional filming reasons. At no point during the film does the credibility as to why the characters are filming come into question.
The 1997 footage is shot by Josh, who intentionally films everything as part of his quest to investigate the truth behind the Phoenix Lights. Conversely, the modern day footage is shot by Josh’s sister Sophie. She is filming a documentary investigating the disappearance of her brother twenty years earlier.
The filming reason for key scenes of the 1997 footage is further bolstered by having the characters film at night in the desert, with the video camera being one of their primarily light sources. Layering tropes like using the video camera as a light source further solidifies the already strong premise for filming.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity looks at how closely a film replicates actual found footage. This aspect of our review takes into account the cinematography, audio, filming reason, acting, plot, and a myriad of other factors. Director Dustin Barber and his dedicated crew did an exceptional job at maintaining the found footage conceit throughout Phoenix Forgotten.
One area where we applaud director Justin Barber is the audio. He demonstrated a great degree of restraint by not using non-diegetic background music and sound design during the 1997 found footage scenes in the last act of the film. The decision not to include these audio elements must have been very difficult, especially considering the nationwide theatrical release of Phoenix Forgotten and the need to accommodate an audience used to predominantly watching narratively shot films.
The film appropriately uses music during the documentary (mockumentary) portions of the modern day footage during the first two-thirds of the film. Viewers are left to assume that the modern day footage was edited with music by character Sophie as part of her documentary. During the documentary scenes, even select portions of the 1997 footage include some music (presumably added by Sophie).
As with most successful found footage films, Phoenix Forgotten uses a primarily unknown cast of actors. The anonymity of the actors helps maintain the illusion of reality or viewers. The entire cast of Phoenix Forgotten is to be commended for their genuine realistic performances throughout the film.
Luke Spencer Roberts performs exceptionally as the somewhat socially inept cinematographer Josh in the 1997 footage. Playing against Luke is the wonderful performance by Chelsea Lopez as Ashley. Chelsea Lopez nails the self-effacing and quiet friend to Josh, sharing in his mission to uncover the truth behind the Phoenix Lights. Of particular note are the similar personality and social quirkiness portrayed by Luke Spencer Roberts and Chelsea Lopez, helping sell the fact that these are two close friends. Justin Matthews, as Mark, performs admirably as the third friend in Josh’s group who heads out into the desert on that ill-fated evening.
In the modern day footage, Florence Hartigan gives an incredible performance as Sophie, a young woman who convincingly bears the weight of her brother’s disappearance twenty years earlier. Florence Hartigan effectively portrays herself as a person who will stop at nothing to get closure and ensure her brother is properly memorialized.
At its core, Phoenix Forgotten is a story about a sister who refuses to let the memory of her brother fade into oblivion. The strength of Sophie’s character comes from her unrelenting drive to find out what really happened to her brother Josh. This story is wrapped around a mockumentary format interlaced with found footage.
Phoenix Forgotten’s script is the brainchild of T.S. Nowlin. He is responsible for writing the screenplays for The Maze Runner (2014), Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015), and the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018). T.S. Nowlin is also announced to be working on Godzilla vs. Kong (2020).
The underlying plot of Phoenix Forgotten is similar to the recent Blair Witch (2016). In both films, the protagonists find lost footage of their older sibling who went missing twenty years earlier. Further, in both films, the protagonists revisit the scene of the disappearance to film their investigation. In Phoenix Forgotten, protagonist Sophie investigates her brother Josh who disappeared in 1997. In Blair Witch (2016), James investigates his sister Heather who disappeared in 1999.
While the film is close to technically flawless as far as found footage technique is concerned, Phoenix Forgotten does have challenges with pacing—the film is a slow burn. Some viewers may be put off by the slow plot development during the first half of the film. Patience will pay off, however, as the film has a good climax.
Without delving into spoilers, found footage fans will find a specific plot element in Phoenix Forgotten that is similar to two other alien found footage films, Alien Abduction (2014) and Area 51 (2015). Phoenix Forgotten is perhaps best called “Close Encounters of the Blair Witch Kind.” Although the film is presented in a documentary format, the story effectively combines the bones of the Blair Witch (2016) arc with the tone of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Phoenix Forgotten plays homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). In a similar vein to the characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) making their obsessive pilgrimage to the peak of Devil’s Tower, The main characters in Phoenix Forgotten make a similar trek into the desert in search of something from beyond this world. The film illustrates the power of a dedicated team of creative filmmakers determined to faithfully execute a technically flawless found footage film.
Found footage fans, sci-fi aficionados, and ufologists should flock to theaters to see Phoenix Forgotten, as it’s not too often a found footage film makes a theatrical release. Like the Phoenix Lights of 1997, this is a rare event that found footage fans will not want to miss!