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Phoenix Forgotten

Fox // PG-13 // August 1, 2017
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 17, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

As The Blair Witch Project inches closer to the 20th anniversary of its creation, so too does the found-footage horror subgenre itself, marking decades during which the concept has had every opportunity to strengthen, evolve, or, as some folks would prefer, simply run its course. Since that creepy, folklore-based curio hiked into theaters and made a killing, some following entries into the genre have copied what it did well while switching up the supernatural or fabled subject being pursued by handheld cameras: Bigfoot, Norwegian trolls, a kaiju monster tearing up New York. Others have improved upon both the technology used to keep the concept up-to-date -- notably, using body cameras to avoid that "… are they really holding the camera on their shoulder this entire time?" conundrum -- as well as the situations in which cameras get involved in the first place, from news broadcasts and exorcisms to tracking the degradation of an Alzheimer's patient. Put simply, the found-footage idea has a lot of mileage on it, so it's maddening to see the tedious, haplessly formulaic Phoenix Forgotten duplicate so many of the known pitfalls that have haunted the subgenre for many years.

The uniqueness of Justin Barber's film begins and ends with the real-world event around which it's based: the "Phoenix Lights", a phenomenon observed across Arizona and Mexico in the late ‘90s, where an unexplainable arrow-shaped formation of glowing orbs flew along the night sky on a few occasions. Without an official explanation, speculation naturally lead toward alien visitors as a possible answer, an idea mocked in public responses from the government. Phoenix Forgotten contains dual perspectives on the events, interwoven into a single narrative. One part features the real-time observations of three teenagers -- Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), and Mark (Justin Matthews) -- who disappeared in the desert shortly after the Phoenix Lights, transpiring through videotapes recorded by Josh as documentary footage about the possible alien connection. The other side takes place twenty years later, in which Josh's sister, Sophie (Florence Hartigan), decides to create her own documentary about their enigmatic disappearance, leading her to interview acquaintances and investigate clues.

Just so it's clear: two guys and a girl filming a documentary about a paranormal mystery, one hotly debated as being real or not by the locals, inexplicably disappear during their search through the wilderness for evidence of its existence, leaving behind only the raw material shot on tape. Phoenix Forgotten clearly isn't oblivious or beholden to the similarities it shares with The Blair Witch Project, since Justin Barber front-loads the film with modern-day material centered on the sister's doc pursuits, replacing that signature found-footage disclaimer text with interviews and descriptions of what happened to the trio. Even this feels like a retread, though, mirroring the premise of the recent Blair Witch sequel, in which a sibling documents the search for the truth decades after the disappearance. The featureless execution of Sophie's investigation accomplishes little beyond charting a course to how this found footage gets, y'know, found, as well as breaking up the endless stretches of old, garbled home-video quality shots with crisp high-definition photography of the Arizona desert.

By taking place in the late-‘90s, the core events of Phoenix Forgotten avoid having to appear updated with modern technology, but doing so also forces it to stumble into the same traps as other entries into the subgenre -- shaky camera, patchy navigation, etc. -- even managing to amplify those documented issues and introduce a few of its own. With the help of the modern-day interviews spliced within Josh's raw footage, the initial reels are framed as examples of a possible movie-making talent chasing a supernatural urban legend, but they also chronicle an awkward teen infatuation through his interactions with his fellow "producer", Ashley. While it's reasonable that writer/director Barber wouldn't want to straight-up copy the structure and intention of The Blair Witch Project, the cluttered objectives and the interruptions of modern-day footage sidetrack the illusion and immersion of what's happening around Josh, thus pulling more attention toward wooden personal interactions and bland home-video visuals. Chalking that up to the nature of teenagers making an amateur doc only goes so far.

Along the way, Phoenix Forgotten overlooks the tension that should be building to that expected point where their discoveries turn from vague, eerie hints at extraterrestrial encounters to when things start going bump in the night. There's anticipation involved with getting answers to how this trio of "filmmakers" disappeared, but little emphasis falls on exactly why they're in danger while wandering around a small patch of desert underneath where intergalactic travelers may have flown over. Had Barber's film surfaced a decade or so ago, before the likes of Grave Encounters and As Above So Below pushed further with the capabilities of terror and tech within the concept, this antiquated hike through the late-night Arizona landscape might've generated just enough novelty suspense to coexist with the subgenre as a science-fiction oddity. At this point, the rickety mechanisms that keep Phoenix Forgotten moving are so recognizable and uninspired that they'll make someone who once unfavorably compared the similarities between other found-footage horror movies reconsider the severity of their criticisms.

Video and Audio:

Standard operative procedure with found-footage horror on home video applies to Phoenix Forgotten and its high-definition transfer, which shifts in aspect ratio between 1.78:1 for the crisp modern-day footage and 1.33:1 for the ‘90s hand-cam material. Especially since most of the film centers on Josh's recordings and the television broadcasts from the era, pretty much all criticisms thrown at the transfer are deflected by the wall of artistic intent; fuzziness, graininess, murkiness, blunt colors, and image distortion all fall into the boundaries of the desired aesthetic and source material. The modern-day footage can be quite striking, though, showcasing razor-sharp details and ample color fluctuations in close-ups of …'s freckled face, the textured horizons of Arizona's mountains, and a charred video camera. Beyond the film's subjective successes on a cinematic level, the Blu-ray retains the visual illusion desired by Phoenix Forgotten, and that's what's important.

Essentially the same spiel applies to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, where pointing out issues with fidelity or stability of the dialogue, sound effects, and surround activity mixes with the film's overarching intentions. As one can expect, there isn't much to the sonic design during the home-video footage beyond a lot of dialogue and mild atmospheric effects, like wind blowing against the recorder's microphone and the crumbling of rock material during hikes; however, there's some clever separation at the front of the sound stage and the dialogue comes through very clean (perhaps too clean), and writer/director Barber doesn't let the "illusion" of the picture get in the way of a few specific aggressive sequences. The modern-era material is another story, though: it features dramatic, LOST-esque musical cues and the insistent clarity of modern technology, with well-attuned dialogue that properly engages the lower-end spectrum. When the track needs to engage, it engages.

Special Features: BR<
Audio Commentary with Director Justin Barber and ActorsFlorence Hartigan, Chelsea Lopez, and Justin Matthews:
Director Barber and his actors hit a nice rhythm of discussing details precisely as they appear onscreen, revealing truths about what's going on that one really wouldn't assume based off what's been shot. Barber discusses transforming the actor who plays Sophie's dad into an older iteration of himself -- not knowing the actor, I assumed and believed his older appearance was his actual one -- as well as identifying shooting locations, pointing out inaccuracies in the set design, and anecdotes about the actors embodying their characters. Everyone's upbeat and effervescent as they chat about the movie, resulting in a light, simple track that loses steam as it progresses.

Fox have also included Sophie's Story (3:12, 16x9 HD), which bundles together the faux-news footage incorporated into the film with an "exclusive" interview with Florence Hartigan in-character as Sophie, and Phoenix Found (7:16, 16x9 HD), in which the cast and crew -- including producer Ridley Scott -- discuss the unsolved mysteries centered around the Phoenix Lights and using that as a springboard for a found-footage horror movie. There's also a Theatrical Trailer (2:02, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

"Blair Witch Project … but with aliens!" sounds like a nifty premise for a movie, but Phoenix Forgotten executes that idea far too literally for its own good. Taking place during the ‘90s shortly after an extraterrestrial phenomenon occurred above Arizona and Mexico, called the Phoenix Lights, the film gets placed in the same roundabout technological state as Project, thus eliminating the possibility of seeing updated technology. It also focuses on two guys and a girl who mysteriously disappeared on an excursion into the wilderness while attempting to document the truth about a local reported phenomenon, after they had recorded their own research and interviews, and we know based on the premise itself that they vanished without an explanation. While Phoenix Forgotten isn't interested in selling the illusion that it's actual found footage, and while it does contain a parallel story of one of the victim's sisters making her own documentary about their disappearance, those differences are insubstantial when looking at the moving parts of the trio's disappearance itself and the design of the suspense around it. This makes the found-footage genre's struggles with pacing, character genuineness, and visual engagement stand out even more, resulting in a sluggish genre emulation that's low on scares and lower on imagination. Let this one fly over and hunt down some other recent found-footage flicks. Skip It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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