“The Phoenix Indecent” is a found footage film and mockumentary written and directed by Keith Arem. The film is structured as a documentary investigation of the events leading up to and following the disappearance of four campers on March 14, 1997, the date of the famous Phoenix Lights incident.
This film is the first of three found footage features created about the Phoenix Lights incident in as many years. In 2015, The Phoenix Incident had its theatrical release. In 2016, The Phoenix Tapes’ 97 (2016) was released. In 2017 a third found footage treatment of the event is due out called Phoenix Forgotten (2017).
In true documentary fashion, The Phoenix Incident opens with a montage of war footage, still images, and a voiceover detailing a two-decade long covert war against extraterrestrial forces fought by military leaders across the world. Multiple military engagements are cited across Asia, Europe, and Russia. The film postulates that these skirmishes are a retaliation for an incident that took place during March 1997 in Phoenix, Arizona—known as the Phoenix Lights.
The film goes on to play archival news footage from 1997 of four campers who were reported missing in Phoenix, Arizona. Their vehicles and supplies were recovered, but no bodies were found. The Maricopa County Missing Persons Database (a website launched by the filmmakers) has entries for the four missing campers.
From here The Phoenix Incident transitions to found footage recovered from the video cameras of the four campers: Glenn, Mitch, Jacob, and Ryan.The found footage starts the day before the Phoenix Lights as the four would be campers prepare for an excursion to the Phoenix desert for a weekend of camping and offroading with four ATVs in tow on a trailer hitch.
As the group heads deep into the Phoenix desert, they observe a flurry of military aircraft, including choppers and fighter jets. As dusk approaches, they witness what appears to be a dogfight between the fighter jets and a fast moving aircraft, unlike anything they’ve ever seen. The unknown craft plummets to the desert floor after being hit with the ordinance from one of the military jets.
Concerned for the welfare of the pilot, the group of campers jump onto their ATVs and head out to the crash site to lend assistance. The four campers soon discover that they are ill prepared for what they find at the crash site and must use all of their resources to fight for their very survival.
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography in The Phoenix Incident is generally good. The footage presented throughout the film is captured from a variety of camera sources and utilizes a combination of daytime, night vision, and thermal sensing video cameras and still image cameras.
The footage captured by the four missing campers is shot using a handheld video camera and makeshift head-mounted camera. Additional footage of the campers is captured from surveillance cameras in a building they find themselves in towards the latter part of the film.
The head mounted camera is actually a 1990’s era handheld video camera attached to a bike helmet with duct tape. Director Keith Arem is to be commended for using this approach as consumer grade cameras such as GoPro were not available in 1997. The use of this video camera offers engaging POV sequences where the character Glenn is riding his ATV and navigating the circuitous hallways of a building in the latter part of the film.
All of the 1990’s era found footage in The Phoenix Incident looks as though it were shot with era-appropriate analog video cameras. The footage looks aged, with an image resolution, video tracking lines, and analog static commensurate with video cameras of that year. The Phoenix Incident also includes surveillance camera footage captured at different locations.
The surveillance camera footage contains the expected onscreen timestamps and location labels, lending more authenticity to the end product. In some instances, the filmmakers add an on-screen low battery indicator light when the power to the cameras is lost. Including video camera GUI elements in a found footage film is typically frowned upon, as these elements do not record to video. However, in the case of a 1990s era surveillance system, it was not uncommon for the video camera feed (line-out) to be routed to a VHS recorder for archiving. In this case, the camera GUI would be captured.
The mockumentary portions of the film are shot with a combination of professional news cameras, recorded television feeds, professional cameras for interviews, surveillance cameras, military satellite imagery, and video cameras mounted on military aircraft. The military footage uses a combination of daytime, night vision, and thermal sensing video cameras.
With the exception of the archival news footage, which looks like an aged VHS recording of a television feed, the mockumentary portions of the film are generally of a much higher resolution, having been shot closer to present day with more modern video equipment. Additionally, the 1997 video captured from military grade video equipment is of a much higher resolution and quality than the consumer grade video cameras used by the characters in the desert. In the 1990s, the gap in quality between military grade and consumer grade video cameras was far greater than today.
The Phoenix Incident infuses a healthy amount of well-done CGI creature and aircraft effects which nicely complement the more action-packed scenes. Of particular note is the POV cinematography during an ATV chase scene in the desert. Without delving into spoilers, the use of the head-mounted camera, POV view, high energy chase, and CGI blends seamlessly to create one of the film’s pivotal scenes.
The filming reasons used in The Phoenix Incident are very good. One of the weaknesses typically encountered in found footage films is a plausible reason as to why the characters film everything. The main character, Glenn, is a thrill seeker who takes great pride recording his outrageous stunts. He builds a makeshift head-mounted video camera to record his experiences from his own POV. Head mounted cameras in found footage films have a secondary value—since a head mounted camera film automatically, the characters can continue recording even in the face of danger without raising the questions.
The remaining footage making up the documentary portions of the film are appropriately shot—the very purpose of The Phoenix Incident is to piece together the events that transpired through found footage, interviews, archival news footage, military footage, and still images.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity is a measure of how well a film approximates actual found footage. The Phoenix Incident does a commendable job maintaining a strong found footage conceit through the myriad of different video and still image sources used throughout the film.
While the found footage purity is very well done, the inclusion of background music during the footage captured by the four campers is wholly unrealistic. To the film’s credit, The Phoenix Incident is presented as a documentary, which opens the doors to adding music and other non-diegetic sounds to the film. However, documentary filmmaking customarily isolates music to interview scenes, reenactments, and narrative voiceovers. Actual found footage is never tampered with as this changes the context of what is perceived to a be a factual presentation of an event.
The Phoenix Incident includes a growing crescendo of music as the film pushes through the climactic found footage scenes. While the score helps create tension and markedly improves the entertainment value on a theatrical level, the music nonetheless detracts from the technical merits of a pure found footage film.
In another scene in the latter part of the film, the audio feed from the video camera was briefly muted as if to indicate that the characters were overwhelmed by their predicament. This is a cinematic technique often used in war films to illustrate that a soldier is briefly zoned-out and snaps back into the moment as the audio returns to normal. This is an effective technique in a traditional narrative shot film but does not fit in a found footage film as the audio change is in the character’s mind, not the actual footage.
Setting aside the non-diegetic audio elements and a few other minor inconsistencies, the film does a good job presenting itself as real found footage.
The acting in The Phoenix Incident is very well done. The four main protagonists are introduced through footage captured the day before the incident. Yuri Lowenthal does a great job playing Glenn, an athlete and the thrill-seeker among the group. Since Yuri Lowenthal’ character wears his makeshift head-mounted camera for most of the film, his screen-time is somewhat limited. Travis Willingham does a wonderful job playing Glenn’s best friend Mitch. Mitch is ex-military and also the consummate athlete. Rounding out the group are the commendable performances by Troy Baker, who plays Ryan, and Liam O’Brien as Jake.
Michael Adamthwaite turns in a convincing performance as Walton, a retired war veteran, and religious fanatic that the main protagonists have a run-in with. His focused physical acting and portrayed violent temperament lend a strong contrast to the laid back group of friends that encounter him later in the film. Also of note are the performances by Scot Ruggles as Lt. Scott Jordan, the lead investigator in the case of the missing campers, and Jamie Tisdale as Melissa, Ryan’s girlfriend.
The Phoenix Lights incident has sparked the imagination of ufologists and filmmakers alike for over two decades. The 1997 historical event has made its way into three found footage films, many narrative films, and countless documentaries that aired over the past twenty years.
The Phoenix Incident is a welcome addition to the body of cinematic work covering the mysterious events that took place on that evening in 1997. The filmmakers are to be commended for adding the Missing Persons Database website to supplement the feature film, offering diehard fans of The Phoenix Incident an opportunity to dig deeper into the mystery and possible government conspiracy surrounding the event.
The Phoenix Incident is a high-octane visceral thrill ride that fans of found footage, science-fiction, aliens, and ufologists are likely to appreciate. The film is certainly a work of fiction, but once again raises the question—What actually happened on March 14, 1997, in the skies above Phoenix?