Phoenix Incident, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/07/16 00:00:00

"The truth is elsewhere."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: I think that I vaguely recall the "Phoenix Lights" that give this film its name; at least, there was a feeling of familiarity when the footage appeared which demonstrates that filmmaker Keith Arem has either done a nice job of integrating real-world material or creating something that seems real. That's better than a lot of people making a science fiction story that fits into the real world's shadows manage, but like a lot of sci-fi looking to fit into that niche, it runs into some pretty hard limits on what it can actually accomplish.

If you don't remember the Phoenix Lights, they were a set of unusually synchronized UFOs that appeared in the sky over Phoenix, Arizona, on 13 Match 1997. Less widely-reported, the film posits, is that four young men - Glenn Lauder (Yuri Lowenthal), Ryan Stone (Troy Baker), Jacob Reynolds (Liam O'Brien), and Mitch Adams (Travis Willingham) - out four-wheeling in the desert went missing that night. Police investigations initially focused on Walton S. Grayson (Michael Adamthwaite), a local cultist/hermit, but he was never charged - perhaps because of pressure brought to bear by the Air Force.

Arem presents this as a mock documentary which incorporates a fair amount of found footage, and while this occasionally makes a film unusually compelling and gives the filmmakers an in-story reason for things to be kept hidden and excuses a few other rough edges, it's a style that has some overhead. Here, that includes a fair amount of time spent explaining that Glenn was the sort of X-Games enthusiast who built wearable cameras to capture his tricks because GoPro was not yet a thing in 1997, time spent arguing about turning the camera off, and a fair chunk of material where the unseen filmmakers hear that having your only son disappear without any sort of closure is awful from the people left behind a and get stonewalled by a fair number of bland government functionaries. When they do get information, it's because an informant shot in shadows to preserve his anonymity (something that the structure of this sort of film prevents the audience from carrying about, so it's all window-dressing) is narrating but not showing anything. Even when this sort of thing is made to look authentic enough, as is the case here, it's all material that is honestly not that important but takes up a fair amount of time.

That time could maybe be used to build up the cast of characters a little; they start off a kind of homogeneous group of white male bros who each get one or two traits that do the minimum amount necessary to tell apart rather than really set up anything that will matter much when things start getting weird. They're not bad performances at all; there's just not much to them. Michael Adamthwaite, meanwhile, does more or less what's expected as his creepy old dude, but he goes for it. That is probably what makes Travis Willingham the standout of the main cast - Mitch winds up having the biggest (and often most obnoxious) personality of the cast, and being the sort of hawk that wears military-themed t-shirts without having actually served means that he's ready to go big when it's time for action scenes.

And, yes, there are action scenes; unlike a lot of people who make this sort of found-footage, conspiracy-centered movie, Arem does eventually reward the audience's patience with more than just vague shadows and maybe a last-minute glimpse. The movie actually feels kind of big for a whole, almost gleeful as it blows things up and lets some blood gush. Arem has a background in video games, and that proves a real asset when trying to make big action out of found-footage material; even when doing more cinematic cut-scenes, he has spent a lot of time considering the first-person perspective than filmmakers who took a more conventional route, and it shows during those sequences.

(NOTE: Apparently, the version released on video in the UK last year is substantially different, and I suspect there's much less of these action scenes in that edition.)

It doesn't lead to much, though, and part of the reason is ambition. Arem and the other producers have been seeding "vital content" on the Internet throughout production and intend to launch a larger app/website after the film's release, intended to fill in some of the gaps (like the girlfriend who drives off to get help but is never seen again, including in the present-day segments). Sequels and spin-offs are envisioned, and that holds The Phoenix Incident back from having a conclusion of much consequence just as much as making it a mock-doc of something that happened twenty years ago.

That leaves it not a bad movie - it's actually fairly enjoyable for the sort of picture that it is, especially once it starts diving into things, and for all I know, it may be part of something really fun with second-screen content and online scavenger hunts. I didn't find its world interesting or unique enough to want all that, but I suspect that it would be kind of neat when approached from the other direction.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.