Found footage films represent a particularly divisive form of cinema. Usually exploited for horror purposes more than anything else, they are typified by a deliberately amateurish quality and a first-person perspective in which the viewer’s visibility of the action is confined to a single character operating a video camera. This limited viewpoint is why the form is so well suited to horror – limiting what the audience is able to see at any given time is a well-tested way of upping the fear and tension in a scary situation.
At the same time, many viewers have issues with the jagged, hand-held photography causing motion sickness, and the relative ease with which any enterprising filmmaker can exploit the form has led to an awful lot of sub-standard works. I generally find myself on the side of having a lot of time for the found footage phenomenon, but I am as aware as anyone of the quality issues that exist.
Phoenix Forgotten is a 2017 blend of science fiction and horror, and marks the directorial debut of Justin Barber. It follows protagonist Sophie Bishop (Florence Hartigan), who returns to her Arizona home to make a documentary project about her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) – who went missing in the desert with two friends 20 years earlier after witnessing UFOs in the sky.
It seems Phoenix Forgotten had a fair amount of support in getting made. Its producers include directors Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), Wes Ball (The Maze Runner), and Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons), as well as former Columbia Pictures head Mark Canton. Upon release, however, it almost entirely flew under the radar. It is not difficult to see why: the film owes a particularly obvious debt to Myrick and Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999): an attempt to make a documentary goes awry and leads to growing tension. The film’s final act in particular feels rather derivative, and relies on near-identical techniques to enhance the frightening elements – only this time with UFOs instead of witches.
That said, the film is not a total write-off. The first two-thirds, focused closely on Sophie’s attempts to research her brother’s disappearance, has a nice growing sense of paranoia and a well-paced story. Florence Hartigan also delivers a reasonable good performance in the role. While the final third does feel a little too much in debt to Blair Witch, it does manage to include some particularly nice touches and surprises that offer some originality in its less inspired context.
Enjoyment of Phoenix Forgotten ultimately depends on how much the individual viewer likes found footage movies. In that context it is a relatively enjoyable small-scale thriller – not particularly memorable, but certainly sufficiently well made to pass away its 87-minute running time. Should the form prove a challenge, however, then there is certainly not enough meat on its bones to justify the effort is sitting through it. On this one, your mileage is going to vary.