On the Phoenix Lights, the paradox of mysteries and answers, and the found-footage foothold of conspiratorial Americana
Phoenix Forgotten Cinelou Films
Director: Justin Barber
Screenplay: Justin Barber and T.S. Nowlin
Starring: Chelsea Lopez, Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter and Ana Dela Cruz
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 27 minutes / 1.85:1 and 1.33:1
April 21, 2017
(out of four)
Some mysteries demand to be solved. Others are captivating precisely because they will not, cannot and should not ever be. It's the nature of mysteries to be more interesting as exactly that; once there's resolution, the thing itself has disappeared. Explanations can be something of a self-cleaning oven. More than that, actually - self-erasing. An answer can remove any evidence of a mystery's existence. The best answers are the ones that conjure new questions, uncover new depths. Though not every mystery has the luxury of that possibility.
Leave it to the fictional, self-styled documentarians of the world to boil the Phoenix/Prescott Lights phenomenon down to an explicit, "scary" explanation, thus draining every ounce of intrigue from it. The very recording of said explanation - baked into the found-footage conceit of Phoenix Forgotten - reveals how disinterested the filmmakers are in the actual mystery in question. In mystery itself, even. The historical event(s) it's based on - unexplained lights that appeared in the night sky in what may or may not have been a shape or pattern, documented by various testimonials, photographs and recordings - took place in 1997, and in the years since (despite the closing title card's insistence), a few sensible explanations have emerged or been verified. For movie purposes, those explanations are beside the point. Speculative ambiguity lends itself better to this sort of thing than documented fact. As satisfying as it might be for the pedantic among us to debunk and disprove, there'll always be a place reserved for the unofficial story. A place to contend with modern myths, urban legends, the unexplained - all there to be consumed, investigated, wondered about.
There were the conspiratorial documentaries that used to pop up on prime-time network schedules on occasion, which eventually found a home on places like The History Channel (for some reason) and other niche networks, and finally thrived in various corners of the web. Those who hold dearly to an extraterrestrial explanation for something like the Phoenix Lights - including my adolescent 1997 self - can find more than enough sources to indulge such entertaining flights of fancy. But couched more unequivocally in fiction, there's plenty to be done with that type of storytelling and that type of ideology. The circular, rabbit-hole logic; the kind of mystery that sparks the imagination but is virtually custom-designed to perpetually reinforce its own tantalizing insolubility. Horror's found-footage era has made room for our proudest American conspiracies - Bigfoot (Willow Creek), the Loch Ness Monster (Incident at Loch Ness), moon landings (Operation Avalanche, Apollo 18), government alien coverups (Area 51). And though found-footage seems to be on its way out, that doesn't mean Hollywood could resist squeezing this particular phenomenon into the subgenre, first with The Phoenix Incident and now with Phoenix Forgotten, which soon will be.
The film is less like The Blair Witch Project and more like last year's follow-up, Blair Witch, with a sibling picking up the pieces of recovered footage and evidence and following the trail of a past disappearance. Directed and co-written by Justin Barber, the film doubles down on its format of choice, giving us one faux-documentary narrative nested inside another. The latter, set in present-day, is part retrospective, part personal investigation. Twentysomething Sophie (Florence Hartigan) returns to her hometown to look back at the unexplained incident that so captivated her older brother Josh two decades earlier, and which led directly to his disappearance. Her investigation leads to the discovery of some long-lost footage captured by Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) and the two friends, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews), who disappeared with him during an aborted attempt to uncover the truth of what happened on that mysterious March night.
Josh is the standard prototype for this scenario - the budding young filmmaker who can't frame a shot but is propelled by youthful obsession for his chosen subject. His subject in this case is as much his cohort Ashley - cute blonde journalist-in-training - as the presumptive UFO situation he's following. His crush is palpable, but it helps - for the film's sake - that Lopez makes the character as endearing as she does. Hers is not an obsession but something more along the lines of freewheeling curiosity; the tragedy that emerges, aside from the obvious, is the expunging of a courageous, inquisitive spirit. It's funny that, despite Josh's older sister being the de-facto point-of-view for the story, Josh himself barely registers as a character. It becomes Ashley's story - and that of the parents that lost her.
But the film's unavoidable reality is that the more we (or rather, Josh, Ashley and Mark) see, the more we discover about what really happened on that night, the less interesting the whole story becomes. This is a fundamental flaw of Phoenix Forgotten - but not an uncommon one. It is so eager to explain itself in detail - for these three teenagers to unambiguously encounter something of world-changing significance - that the movie as a whole becomes a self-defeating exercise. The more we see happen on that old discarded videotape, the less mysterious that disappearance becomes, the fewer questions it can ask. I can't go so far as to say it leaves nothing to the imagination - after all, the film is still limited to whatever someone could feasibly have captured on a late-'90s recording device left behind in the desert - but leaves so little as to render the finer details more or less unimportant.
Surely there's some nice middle ground situated between full explication of a mystery's secrets and the inconclusive hints, rumors, and disorganized puzzle pieces that can be simultaneously engrossing and agonizing. Somewhere between one explanation and another, between evidence and speculation, between the terrifying and the banal. Wherever that sweet spot is, Phoenix Forgotten can't find it. If it had surprised us with an answer of dazzling ingenuity, something that was thought-provoking in and of itself, it could have avoided this inherent flaw. Instead, Barber and co-writer T.S. Nowlin offer only a rote explanation, stripping us of the greater awe of possibility.