After a brief cacophonous montage of overlapping images culled from several TV news sources, we cut to a slightly more serene video of an outdoor cookout dated March 13, 1997, held in celebration of a young girl’s 6th birthday.
Shot by her older brother, Josh, on a camcorder, he gathers video well-wishes and testimonials from their parents, grandparents, and other friends until their mom wrestles the camera away and turns it on her son, forcing him to say something nice about his little sister, Sophie, on camera, too. Honestly, Josh doesn’t mount much of a protest over these demands, but before he can say anything the video pauses and a voiceover cryptically says this would be the last time the Bishops were ever all together as a family.
We then cut to the Phoenix airport, where we meet the person behind that voice, Sophie Bishop (Hartigan), now 26, who has returned home with her cameraman, Jay (Keitel), in tow, filming her every move. Her father, Steve (Jordan), picks them up.
And when he asks what the camera is for, Sophie reveals she is in the process of making a documentary about Josh, which gets a physical reaction from their dad -- and not a pleasant one.
Now, at this point I will pause and point out that we are not watching the “making of” efforts of Sophie’s documentary but the completed documentary itself as the film constantly cuts between newer footage and interviews shot by Sophie and Jay, Josh’s old videos, and archival news footage, which is what we cut to next for another montage that reveals the delicate and touchy nature of the subject matter of this “proposed” documentary: how Josh and two of his friends, Ashley Foster and Mark Abrams, essentially disappeared into the desert without a trace two decades ago. And while the case is still open, all possible leads have long since dried up and left the moribund investigation mired in an insurmountable pile-up of dead-ends.
Thus, this unexplained disappearance has haunted the Bishop family and left a very deep scar, too, as we quickly suss out her parents are separated, in the process of getting acrimoniously divorced, and selling off the old house -- too many triggering memories there, I guess. In fact, Steve declines to even enter the house. But her mom, Caroline (Strittmatter), is there, and after exchanging hugs we see everything is all packed up and ready to move -- except for Josh’s room, which has remained untouched since he left that fateful morning never to return. Caroline could not face the task alone, and is glad for Sophie’s help, who asks if she still has all of Josh’s old tapes. She does.
Apparently, Josh (Roberts) fancied himself as an amateur auteur and his video camera was constantly on and welded to his hand. And after digging through an old shoe-box full of tapes, Sophie finds the one she’s looking for, which we see is marked “Sophie’s 6th Birthday” on the label -- only that is scribbled out, with the words “Phoenix Lights” written above it as she pushes it into the VCR.
And as the images find a track and flicker to life on the TV, we cut back to her birthday party, where Josh is about to say what he loves about her so much, when suddenly, everyone's attention is drawn to the night sky, where a strange formation of lights appear and hover over the city of Phoenix, Arizona.
Here, Josh wrests the camera away from his mom and excitedly captures the v-shaped phenomenon on tape before the lights slowly disappear. Convinced they all just witnessed a bona fide UFO, the gathered others don’t quite share Josh’s conviction or enthusiasm -- especially his dad, who believes it was probably just the military out on maneuvers. But then, almost on cue, two fighter jets roar over the house from behind them at an extremely low and dangerous altitude on an intercept course to where the lights were last seen, convincing Josh more than ever that what they saw was not of this Earth.
Josh’s footage soon makes the family semi-famous, too, as they make the local news, where he and his father are interviewed on TV and recount what they saw that night while Josh’s tape of the Lights is broadcast over the airwaves on several outlets. But the tone of the coverage soon switches from awe and wonder to rationalism and skepticism when the official explanation for these mystery lights is released, saying they were nothing more than misidentified military flares shot-off during a training exercise.
Not buying this cover-up for a second, Josh is soon obsessed with finding out the truth -- the real truth. And so, armed with his trusty camera, as always, the impulsive teenager makes the fateful decision to get to the bottom of this mystery and prove what those Lights really were. And it was in pursuit of this truth that led Josh and the others out into the desert.
As to what happened next, well, no one can say for sure. But his sister is determined to find out. And one can only hope as she doggedly attempts to retrace Josh and the others’ final steps on that last day, trying desperately to fill in one big critical gap in the timeline that could unlock the whole thing, that Sophie doesn’t wind up sharing the same fate as her brother in her own obsessive search for the truth...
The first known sighting of what would come to be ubiquitously known as The Phoenix Lights actually took place in Henderson, Nevada, on March 13, 1997, where a man reported spotting a large V-shaped object in the night sky around 7:55pm, about the size of a Boeing 747, with six visible lights running the length of the leading edge, silently moving to the southeast. About twenty minutes later, a similar object was reported by a former police officer near Paulden, Arizona, which is about 200 miles southeast of Henderson, which is just south of Las Vegas. Here, the witness reported a cluster of four alternating reddish and orange lights with a fifth light trailing behind them, making him believe they were from two separate sources, which he continued to observe through binoculars until the lights disappeared over the mountains, still moving south by southeast, toward Prescott Valley.'
Sometime later, The National UFO Reporting Center received the following witness statement from the same area dated the same day and same time-frame from an amateur photographer, who was out shooting pictures of the night sky: “I observed five yellow-white lights in a "V" formation moving slowly from the northwest, across the sky to the northeast, then turn almost due south and continue until out of sight. The point of the "V" was in the direction of movement. The first three lights were in a fairly tight "V" while two of the lights were further back along the lines of the "V"'s legs. During the NW-NE transit one of the trailing lights moved up and joined the three and then dropped back to the trailing position. I estimated the three light "V" to cover about 0.5 degrees of sky and the whole group of five lights to cover about 1 degree of sky.”
Around this same time, John Kaiser was outside with his wife and sons in Prescott Valley when they noticed the lights, too, which they claimed formed a triangular pattern as it silently flew directly overhead and then disappeared over the horizon, still moving to the southeast, toward Glendale and Phoenix. Tim Ley and his family also observed the lights moving through Prescott Valley, and would later describe five distinct lights attached to what he called a carpenter’s square -- a V-shaped tool, until it disappeared over Squaw Peak, moving toward the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where, revealed in a later interview with the BBC, actor Kurt Russell was in the process of landing his private plane when he spotted the mystery object, too, and reported this sighting to the control tower.
Multiple witnesses in the western suburbs of Glendale saw the object pass overhead, partially obscured by clouds, between 8:30 and 8:45pm as it finally reached Phoenix proper, where thousands of witnesses observed what was collectively described as a large angular craft -- some claims put it at nearly a mile long, blotting out the other stars as it hovered silently for nearly two hours, demarcated by those lights, which had now increased to nine, and were described by some as “canisters of swimming light” embedded in the underbelly of the craft, which purportedly undulated -- as if looking through water. From there, the craft continued on to the southeast around 11pm, where it was spotted again near Tucson as it continued south, which was verified later by multiple sightings in Sonora, Mexico, before the craft finally vanished for good.
And while there were thousands of eye-witnesses, who clogged up phone lines to TV stations, newspapers, the police, and Luke Air Force Base, wanting to know what it in the hell that was, and while multiple photos and videos of this close encounter were shot, the incident barely made a ripple outside of the Phoenix area until a follow-up feature ran nearly two months later on the front page of the June 18, 1997, edition of the USA Today, which featured an artist rendition of the mystery craft.
And then the whole thing kind of blew up, and the sighting officially became a cause célèbre in UFO circles, as people called for a federal investigation to explain what the object was and where it came from, leading to the infamous news conference from then Arizona Governor Fife Symington, who declared they had caught the culprit and then marched out one of his aides dressed up as an alien, while the whole thing was written off as misidentified military flares launched from a squadron of A-10 Warthogs, suspended in the air by parachutes, dropped by members of the Maryland Air National Guard, currently visiting the Davis-Monthan AFB and participating in a training exercise held at the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range in western Pima county.
And while that was enough explanation for some, it was not for all -- especially with those earlier sightings in Prescott Valley, including, strangely enough, ex-Governor Symington, who later apologized for his role in trivializing the mass sighting in a later interview in The Prescott Daily Courier, where he claimed to be a witness of the phenomenon himself. "I'm a pilot and I know just about every machine that flies,” said Symington. “It was bigger than anything that I've ever seen. Other people saw it, responsible people ... And it couldn't have been flares because it was too symmetrical. It had a geometric outline, a constant shape. It was enormous and inexplicable. Who knows where it came from?"
Now, as all of this caught fire, one person who was keenly interested in these sightings was a young teenager named Justin Barber. “I was a high school kid when the Phoenix Lights happened,” Barber later related in an April, 2017, interview with Kathie Huddleston for SyFy.com. “It was a peak time for X-Files, and the '90s was big for UFOs. I was always drawn to that material and those types of stories. Like a lot of people who loved sci-fi, growing up as a kid in the suburbs of Florida you just want the world to be more exciting, more fantastic than it is."
After graduating high school, Barber attended Florida State University, where he met Wes Ball and T.S. Nowlin. All three remained friends post-college and wound up working in the film industry in some capacity. Ball and Barber in art direction and visual effects, who worked together on a series of Star Trek shorts in 2009. Nowlin, meanwhile, was a screenwriter, who helped adapt James Dashner’s Maze Runner novels into a feature film franchise -- The Maze Runner (2014), Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (2015), Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018), on which Ball made his directorial debut.
As far back as 1999, when Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) hit big, caused a national phenomenon in viral marketing, and made found footage films a going concern, Ball and Nowlin began kicking around the idea of doing a similar cinema verite project centered around a close encounter with a UFO while they were still in college. What they envisioned was something that started out as “a documentary at first, then goes off the rails and becomes a found footage ride.” And this idea simmered for nearly fifteen years until it resurfaced again around 2015, when Ball and Nowlin started getting some traction in Hollywood, where they brought in Barber due to his recent work on a couple of documentary films for ESPN’s 30 for 30 anthology program.
“I loved the original Blair Witch Project,” said Barber. “It's very authentic; and now twenty years later we live in this age where there is a lot of saturation with movies like that and I think more often than not they don't quite have the same authenticity that the progenitor had. We really just wanted to nail that.” And so, Barber and Nowlin started hashing out a treatment. And while it started as just a random encounter between three teens and a UFO, Barber got the idea to really play up the “Based on a true story” angle as Myrick and Sánchez had done so brilliantly, giving it an air of authenticity.
Digging back into his own past, Barber suggested they base it around The Phoenix Lights sighting instead of something like the Gulf Breeze incidents in his native Florida, feeling the desert provided a better backdrop. “I did a lot of research,” said Barber. “I went to Phoenix, talked to real eyewitnesses and real experts."
But to be fair and honest, what they came up with for Phoenix Forgotten (2017) was still a pretty shameless groping of The Blair Witch Project, where Barber and Nowlin’s script tries to hide their filed-off serial numbers as a documentary tucked inside another documentary wrapped up in a found footage movie. But where Phoenix Forgotten starts to differentiate itself from the originator of the species, with the ingenious way it was set up, is how it allows us to get to know these characters before the shit retroactively hits the fan. For unlike Heather, Josh and Mike, who were, lets face it, nothing but three insufferable assholes that got lost in the woods, we actually kinda like Josh, Ashley and Mark, which is only reinforced by the loss and suffering felt by those they left behind, which is where Barber’s film truly excels.
And as they stuck their fictional characters into a fictional story plugged into an actual event, the family melodrama was a key from the beginning. “When you look at E.T., when you look at Close Encounters, there's just enough interpersonal turmoil to draw you into the characters a little bit, so that later, when they're on the found footage ride, it's more impactful because you actually care about them more. A lot of these [found footage] movies are horror movies. I remember the suspenseful situations and the scary monster, but less so the characters. And I just wanted to make a movie where the characters were more unique and memorable."
Once the script was finished, Barber cut together a proof of concept trailer for Phoenix Forgotten, editing together a news footage mock-up for his missing teens, and they began to shop it around. And then fate sorta stepped in when Nowlin found himself in the offices of Scott Free Productions on another project and wound up in a room with Ridley Scott -- Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), saw an opportunity, and pitched him the movie. Scott was intrigued and “the subject matter appealed to him, but also even the very iterations of the story -- the very suspenseful ride, it felt like a noose tightening around the necks of these characters, and it built to this big finish.” Couple that with the fact his production company had been looking to latch onto one of these low-budget horror productions, Scott gave them a greenlight to proceed. He, Ball and Nowlin would produce -- along with about a dozen others, and Barber was put in charge of directing it.
Inspired by the documentaries of Werner Herzog -- Grizzly Man (2005), Into the Inferno (2016), Errol Morris -- Gates of Heaven (1978), The Fog of War (2003), Tabloid (2010), and especially Moria Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s recent series, Making a Murderer (2015-2018), Barber lays out a solid foundation for the film as he slowly plays out his poker hand, with Sophie’s documentary laying the groundwork, metering out what we know and when we knew it.
And through her we find out how Josh met Ashley Foster when Sophie pulls out a tape marked “Vox Populi” and plays it next, where we see her brother hunting for other eye-witnesses who saw the Lights and interviews them -- some more credible than others. This includes Ashley (Lopez), who never actually saw the Lights, and yet Josh keeps on asking her more questions, and appreciates the interviewing tips she offers to help him on his quest. Showing a natural affinity for the camera, after she relates the biblical UFO story of Ezekiel and the Wheel, Josh lets her go but the camera lingers on Ashley as the girl walks away.
Obviously, Josh has developed an instant-crush. And when Sophie interviews Ashley’s parents, Jack and Melissa Foster (Carerra, Jackson), they say she tended to have that effect on people; a tenacious, compassionate, and gentle soul, who always had time to listen to other people’s woes. Which made her perfect lawyer material to her father, while her mother always saw a crusading reporter -- exemplified by her high school roving reporter videos, which are also incorporated into Sophie’s documentary. But when she asks what they thought of Josh, neither had ever met him. And they honestly had no idea what they were working on.
Apparently intrigued by what Josh was doing, Ashley decided to help out with his research into UFOs, ancient aliens, and crop circles, and eventually signed on as a producer and possible co-director of a documentary film about the Phoenix Lights.
Their first official interview was with two members of The Phoenix Astronomical Society (Marron, Boyd), who agree to look at Josh’s raw tape of the Lights. They come away a tad disappointed, here, when both men agree what they’re looking at are indeed a bunch of flares suspended on the ends of parachutes.
Probing further, they next interview a Native American (Duncan), who relates some old folklore of the area about the Sky People; from whom his tribe descended. And then things really perk up when he mentioned how he used to see the same kind of lights all the time out at the Salt River Reservation. Thus, it doesn’t take much to talk Ashley into taking a trip out to the desert. The problem is, how do they get there since neither of them have a car. Not to worry, says Josh, he’s got a few ideas on that.
Enter Mark Abrams (Matthews), and more importantly, Mark’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. A friend of Josh’s since grade school, a Boy Scout his whole life, and familiar with the area, Mark agrees to take the other two tenderfoots out to the Reservation and chaperone them into the desert for a quick tour to see what they can see. And after an evening of preparations and microwavable burritos, news breaks on the TV that the Lights have returned! Recognizing the area near Mesa, the two pile into the Jeep and head out into the night. But by the time they arrive, the Lights are long gone.
However, they do spy a searchlight scanning the sky from a nearby hill and investigate the source, stumbling upon some kind of official operation attended by several deputies, men in protective gear, and cars with no license plates. Making too much noise, they are discovered but manage to get away without being caught.
Rushing home, Josh excitedly pulls out a map of the area, takes a magic marker and marks an X where his family first saw the Lights, and then marks another where the Lights were spotted tonight, and then a third X for where they’re headed tomorrow. The Reservation. He then draws a straight line connecting all three, convinced this flight pattern will lead them right to the UFO.
Cut back to the present for a series of interviews with local law enforcement and those who worked on the case of the missing teens, who break down the investigation from the beginning to its open end. The lead investigator, Detective Jay Pirouznia of the Phoenix PD, now retired, always found it strange to have three kids go missing all at once. Usually one, or two, but seldom three.
She also talks to Kevin Boontjer, another retired Phoenix police officer and pilot, who led the aerial search of the desert, who gives Sophie a tour of the area from his plane, showing the spot where Mark’s Jeep was found. Then, Walter Garza, a retired deputy of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, drives her to the exact spot where the car was found and describes the scene, which gave up a lot of evidence but not a lot of clues as to what happened.
What they know for sure is that on the morning of March 22, 1997, Mark and Josh picked up Ashley at her house at 7:30am on the day of their disappearance. The Jeep was then found by a passing patrolman, abandoned on the side of the road on March 23 at 1:35am. The car was locked, and would later prove to still be in working order. Inside they found several empty beer cans, some traces of blood on the floor underneath the steering wheel -- later determined to be Mark’s, and her brother’s camera.
And with a combination of surveillance video from several stops along the way and the tape recovered with Mark’s camera, they were able to trace their movements and determined where they went up to when that tape ran out, which was almost 11 miles from where they eventually found the Jeep, leaving a huge gap in the timeline where they have no idea what happened next or ultimately what happened to them. An extensive search of the desert area took place, lasting for over two weeks, but not one single trace or sign of the missing was ever found. And despite pleas from the families for help and any information, no one came forward.
Thus, all they can do now is speculate. Did they just wander too far into the desert and get irrevocably lost? Of course, with the blood evidence found, they can’t rule out foul play. Were they abducted? Did they see something they shouldn’t have? Drug dealers? Were they caught in the wrong place at the wrong time? There’s even persistent speculation that the dynamic of the group holds the key -- two boys, one girl, with someone getting jealous, and then things just got out of hand from there and the last one standing has been on the run ever since. Regardless, it’s been 20 years with no sign of anyone, and the general consensus is that all three are most likely dead out there somewhere in the desert, waiting for someone to stumble upon the bones.
And that is the true purpose of Sophie’s documentary, to try and shore up that gap and find out what really happened out there, but she keeps running into the exact same dead-ends. But as the case went cold and the years passed, his camera and the last tape of film Josh most likely ever shot wound up back in the Bishop’s possession.
And when Sophie scours through the footage, she is puzzled over how the tape ends just as they seemingly arrived at their destination. Surely they wouldn’t have driven all the way out to the Salt River Reservation and then stopped filming? Was there a second tape? Or, as some of the footage suggests, was there a second camera?
Turns out the investigators thought of that, too, feeling Josh would’ve never just left the camera in the Jeep on purpose; but again, they found nothing. Feeling this might just be the break they’ve needed for so long, Sophie pushes further, checking in at Josh’s old high school, to see if there are any records of Josh or Ashley checking out a camera that weekend. She talks to Luisa Moreno (Dela Cruz), who’s now in charge of the school’s AV equipment. But she’s only been on the job for five years and the records she has do not go back that far, meaning this is just another in a long line of heartbreaking dead-ends, which is punctuated by more news footage of the search coming to an end, despite pleas from her father not to abandon his son and the others.
Thus, so desperate for answers for her family, Sophie even proves willing to accept some irrational explanations now that all the rational ones have been exhausted. Maybe they did see a UFO that night, and maybe her brother and the others were abducted by aliens. And as crazy as that sounds, to those ends, she engineers a driveway ambush of ex-Governor Symington’s former press secretary, wanting to know why Symington lied to the people and then later admit to seeing a UFO, too; and therefore, Why did he knowingly participate in a cover-up over the Phoenix Lights? But this, too, goes nowhere.
Despite the long passage of time, and coming to grips with the fact their children are most likely dead, none of the families involved have yet to officially declare them so, meaning no funeral and no real closure. The Foster family settled on a Memorial Bench for Ashley. It’s unclear what the Abrams did as Mark’s parents refused to be interviewed, but Sophie did manage to talk to his older brother, Daniel (Biedel), who was an engineering student at Arizona State at the time of the disappearance.
As for her own parents, Sophie puts the question to them: If Josh hadn’t disappeared, would they still be together? Her father says yes, most definitely, and desperately wants to know what her mother said. Her mother was a little more philosophical. Was Josh dead? Did he suffer? Did Ashley have feelings for him, too? She hoped so, hoping he at least had the chance at a relationship however brief before, well, all of this happened.
Inevitably, all those questions got to be too much for the both of them to deal with and still be man and wife. Her father was still in denial; and will be until they find a body. As for her mother, she is ready to finally let go and move on; and with Sophie’s help, they pack up Josh’s things as a way of saying goodbye and find some semblance of peace together at long last. And with that, Sophie’s documentary seemingly comes to an end with another overwhelming montage of mixed footage as she’s dropped back off at the airport for her flight home.
Now, I say “seemingly comes to an end” because as we fade to black, we suddenly cut to three months later as we hear a voice message for Sophie from Louisa Moreno, from the high school, saying to call back as soon as she can. Cut to Sophie scrambling to get out of her rental car and sprinting to some kind of warehouse, where she meets Louisa. Apparently, this building has been in possession of the school district since the 1970s, where all the old and outdated equipment is dumped until it becomes obsolete and then thrown out completely.
And while she was clearing some stuff out, Louisa came across an old package, sent to them by a concerned citizen some time ago, who apparently found something while out hiking in the desert that belonged to the school. And what did they find? Nothing but an old beat-up video camera.
The camera is a total loss, but with Daniel Abrams help, they are able to extract and salvage the tape still inside it, whose label reads “Expedition” written in Ashley’s handwriting. Nervously, they place the tape into a working camera, hook it up to the TV, and press play. When it’s over, a shell-shocked Sophie can’t seem to get her head around what she’s just watched.
After regrouping, she hooks back up with Jay, and together, they travel out to Luke Air Force Base for a follow-up interview with a Captain Groves, with whom she had left a copy of the footage. But they get held up at the gate, where they are told by the guard to park to the side and wait. Nearly an hour later, the gate finally opens and Groves (Cansino) presents himself. Telling Jay to stay in the car but to keep filming no matter what, Sophie exits and engages with her subject. With all the extant noise it’s hard to make out what they’re saying exactly but the gist of it is the interview has been cancelled and Sophie wants to know why he won’t talk to her.
When she asks about the footage, Groves steps closer, angrily whispers something into her ear, and then leaves. Returning to the car, Jay asks a gobsmacked Sophie what the man said and is told it was a warning to not let that tape get out. Asked what she is going to do now? Sophie thinks for a beat, smiles, and says, What do you think Josh would do?
Well, we get our answer as Sophie’s documentary continues, with the last 40-minutes consisting of the unedited and unfiltered footage of the Expedition tape, which picks up right where the other tape left off with the examination of a coyote carcass. From there, Mark leads them on a hike deeper into the desert, where we see a lot of clowning for the camera, and the discovery of several petroglyphs painted on the rocks, depicting a bunch of concentric circles.
As the hike continues, it becomes obvious that Mark and Ashley are getting awfully chummy, which a jealous Josh tries to torpedo later during an impromptu game of Truth or Dare, when they stop and have a few beers, where he asks Mark the truth about an alleged other girlfriend, which turns ugly, adding credence to the argument that perhaps this was just a crime of passion after all.
When the sun starts to set, Mark says it's time to head back because he wants to reach the Jeep before it gets too dark. But as Josh drags his feet, wanting to capture the sunset on film the others quickly point to something else on the horizon: something metallic, glinting in the light, hovering in the distance, which suddenly streaks across the sky, breaks apart and disappears. Hoping to see more, the group tarries too long and are then forced to find their way back in complete darkness.
Along the way, they get lost and panic starts to set in. (Note how they all ironically claim their parents will never miss them if they don’t make it back.) As the panic escalates, Mark assures he knows exactly where they are going. When it becomes obvious he does not, Ashley demands to see the compass, determined to take over this expedition. And while she and Josh huddle up, watching the compass spin in a wobbly circle due to some kind of magnetic interference, Mark heads to some high ground to see if he can spot the vehicle.
Then, they hear something; something that sounds like the world’s most forlorn train horn, multiples of them, that’s getting louder and closer by the second. Then a multitude of strange lights appear over the hill and a great wind kicks up, sucking up all the loose dirt and gravel from the canyon floor. And when the lights and noise suddenly cease, all of that debris showers back down on top of them. The two yell for Mark, who went up the same hill, who then returns, visibly distressed, but claims he saw the car. He also refuses to answer any questions about what else he saw up there as they do find the Jeep and pile in.
Back on the highway, Mark isn’t looking so hot and quickly burns through what’s left of their water supply. Then, just as the radio stops working, Ashley spots a single light racing up fast behind them. And when it roars overhead and disappears again, the Jeep stalls out and refuses to start.
Freaked out by all of this, they push the vehicle to the side of the road, determined to hike out of there before the Lights come back. At some point, Josh notices that Mark’s nose is bleeding; and while he insists he’s okay, Mark quickly falls behind the others and can barely keep up.
And as he becomes even more feverish and sickly and disoriented, Mark starts to hear voices, and then bolts off the road and into the desert, claiming his family has arrived to rescue them. And before Josh and Ashley can catch up to him, those Lights return and Mark disappears in a flash after a huge electrical discharge lights up the desert and an even more violent wind once more sucks everything skyward.
Unable to find him, the remaining two then see a regular light in the distance, which they head toward, revealing some kind of isolated trailer house. But as they move in that direction, Ashley starts showing the same debilitating symptoms as Mark -- fever, nosebleed, weakness, and then her hair starts falling out; a sure sign of acute radiation poisoning. Then they hear that train noise again, followed by the Lights. And as they flee from all of this, Ashley raves about hearing her father as the Lights close in on them.
Here, Josh turns the camera skyward and captures what appears to be a large alien craft, consisting of several concentric, rotating metallic rings. The camera then witnesses Ashley being violently pulled into the sky, where she, too, disappears in a flash of light.
Fleeing in terror, Josh makes it to the deserted trailer and tries to hide from the pursuing alien craft. But between the massive electromagnetic discharges and gravity nullification, the trailer literally comes unhinged and explodes all around him before Josh and his camera are sucked up in another flash of light, distorting the images, until it clears up and we see the camera’s point of view as it free-falls several hundred feet back to the ground, where it lands, hard, shattering the lens, but we can still see the sun coming up over the horizon, which holds until the tape eventually runs out.
One of the biggest challenges Barber faced when trying to sell his film as a true documentary was getting his scripted actors to come off natural and genuine. To help sell it, all the people playing law enforcement were not actors but real police officers, who were given the facts of the fictional case, which allowed them to delve into their own experiences on how such a missing persons case would’ve been handled and let them wing it from there. And while that worked out well enough, it’s the true actors in the cast that really makes this thing work.
Collaboration from top to bottom was the key, and Barber encouraged a lot of improvising to make things seem more off-the-cuff. In fact, most of the non-FX scenes involving Josh, Ashley, and Mark were just the actors turned loose by themselves with a camera. And to make things even more authentic, the three leads -- Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez and Justin Matthews, made up their own bios and shared them with each other but embargoed certain information so only two of them would know what they were talking about while the other did not, allowing the audience to discover things along with the ignorant party -- a simple but surprisingly effective tactic.
And like her character on film, the camera immediately falls in love with Lopez, too, who is absolutely magnetic, the moment we meet her doomed character.
But while the movie is about those missing, the weight of carrying it is primarily on Florence Hartigan, who finally pieces all of this together, and the actors playing the parents, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Jeanine Jackson and David Carrera; because if we don’t believe they care, odds are good we won’t either. Here, Barber made the best decision of all by basically rolling the camera and getting out of the way of his group of relatively unknown players and let them work their craft.
Of course, with the way it's structured as a completed documentary, Barber can have his cake and eat it, too, when it comes to Phoenix Forgotten being a found footage movie, allowing a soundtrack, some inventive editing by Joshua Rosenfield, and a ready-made excuse for cinematographer Jay Keitel to always have the camera filming no matter what. But it also plays fair with the second half, where the lost tape is played unaltered, masking cuts when the camera whips around or when Josh stops filming, who, unlike some other films in this genre, must conserve both his battery and the finite space on the magnetic tape.
And I think that’s one of the best compliments I can give Barber and his movie: how satisfying both half of the films are on their own. I don’t think I can translate how moving the premature ending of Sophie’s doc was when she and her mother finally accept the truth that they may never know the real truth. (Having lost a sibling to violence, I may be a tad biased here.) And while this reckoning was by no means ruined with the discovery and revelation of a bona fide alien abduction as Josh’s final fate, it definitely could have if the found footage segment fell on its face or failed to achieve the same emotional punch.
To keep the film as grounded as possible, Barber and his production supervisor, Tom Moran, wanted to keep the FX practical and in-camera as much as possible. And to those ends they hired Joe Pancake and his JEM FX team, who used a combination of glorified leaf blowers to create all that wind, let gravity do the work to make it rain gravel, and used a system of counterweights to yank the actors into the sky when they got zapped. And they built a Rotisserie Rig for the ultimate climax in the trailer house, which allowed the set to spin 360-degrees to give off the illusion of gravity ceasing to exist as water runs up walls and debris angrily moves around. And to get that final shot, the filmmakers attached a camcorder to a small weather balloon, sent it skyward, and then popped it, allowing the camera to fall back to the ground. To Barber’s amazement, the inner mechanisms survived the fall and even kept recording.
This was all then complimented and fleshed-out with digital FX. Barber had hoped to realize the alien craft with a model miniature but it just wasn’t in the budget. What they pulled-off digitally from the brief glimpse we do get of that gyroscopic nightmare was really impressive and unique in design -- especially when you add in the creepy sound-effects, the wind, and detritus. It’s all very impressive and all very low-tech as one of the things not digitally dickered with was the vintage footage, which was all shot on an HD camcorder, which was then copied onto a NTSC VHS tape, which was then copied again onto another tape before it was edited into the film. And these efforts all leave a lasting impression that resonates long after the film ends.
I first became aware of Phoenix Forgotten in late 2016 when I saw a poster for it tucked away in a corner of a massive multiplex. Intrigued, when I got home, I dug out a trailer on YouTube and became even more intrigued -- impressed by some of the clout in the credits, though its cinematic influences were painfully obvious, and made a mental note to check it out whenever it hit the theater near me. Only it never did -- at least not in my neck of the woods, despite the trailer being subsequently shown several times before other partaken features, which guaranteed it was coming soon. Only it didn’t.
The film was released in April of 2017 but only managed middlin’ box-office and poor reviews and was quickly yanked from circulation. I finally came across it on some streaming service a couple years ago and finally gave it a play, where I easily bought into what Barber was selling, got caught up in the cast revealing the story, and enjoyed the hell out of it. On the surface, it doesn’t break much ground, sure, but when you start digging in and paying attention to all those little details, Phoenix Forgotten definitely deserves to be seen by more people and should be better remembered than this.
Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 16 films down with 10 yet to go. Up next, Women are from Venus and Men are from der Ert. No. Really!
Forgotten (2017) Cinelou Films :: Scott Free Productions :: Oddball
Entertainment :: Singular / EP: Fredy Bush, Wayne Marc Godfrey, David
Hopwood, Cai Jain, Robert Jones, Scott Karol, Tom Moran, Dennis L.
Pelino, Michael Schaefer, Wei Cheng Yu / P: Ridley Scott, Wes Ball, Mark
Canton, T.S. Nowlin, Courtney Solomon / CP: Stephanie Caleb, Pavlina
Hatoupis, Samantha Thomas / AP: Iain Abrahams, Ian Brereton, Mark
Frazier, Joseph Hall, Alexandra Jardine, Christine Kessler, Franchesca
Lantz, Michael K. Dwyer, Babak Eftekhari, Brigitte Wise / LP: Alexandra
Feld, John Taylor Feltner, Carolyn Mao / D: Justin Barber / W: T.S.
Nowlin, Justin Barber / C: Jay Keitel / E: Joshua Rosenfield / M: Mondo
Boys / S: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez, Justin
Matthews, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Roberto Medinam, Jeanine
Jackson, David Carrera, Ana Dela Cruz