APRIL 21, 2017
I can't recall if it was for an article, in a conversation, or maybe just a few tweets, but a while back I listed a few "rules" for making an effective found footage movie, after growing weary of seeing so many that failed to even come close to presenting any sort of reality. I mean, sure, when you're walking into Paranormal Activity 6 you can't expect anything even remotely believable (which is the key to making these particular movies work, but what do I know? I'm just the guy laughing at the series' downfall), but standalone films really have no excuse for the sloppiness I often see. So I'm happy to say that Phoenix Forgotten gets a lot more right than it does wrong, and its only real flaw is joining a party that's essentially over. Had it come out during the format's peak in popularity (2011-ish), we might be singling it out as one of the best of the lot. Now, it's just likely to ignored, and eventually give lazy punwriters an easy mark given its unfortunate title.
The most important one of these rules is to let the viewer get sucked into the possibility that what we're watching is real. Now, I mean in a general sense - I know Ridley Scott did not produce an actual snuff film, but if they do their job, I should catch myself on occasion thinking that I'm seeing at least SOME actual footage, not an entirely fictional piece. Because if they can't do that, there's really no point to the POV aesthetic - it's limiting for the filmmakers and can be a turnoff for some viewers (motion sickness, for starters), so when handicapped from the start it baffles me that so many fail to even try to depict a naturally shot piece. Impossible cutaways, recognizable actors, overuse of CGI, people filming their own loved ones being murdered... all these sins are committed time and time again, but I saw little to none of that stuff here. In fact, given the way the movie is structured, I really believed that I was watching re-purposed footage for a while, as if filmmaker Justin Harper found someone's home movies and creatively cut them in a way that could be used as genuine backdrop for a present day story he made up.
And that leads to the second rule Harper and his crew thankfully followed - they made the movie compelling from the get-go. Far too many of these films have long buildup to brief payoffs (even some of the good ones are technically guilty of this), because there's just the one or two cameras being used on this one trip into the woods or whatever, and the movie has to hit a feature runtime but also make sure no one is too rattled to keep shooting. Phoenix finds a pretty simple but effective way around this - it splits the timeline between the present day and 1997, with the present day scenes featuring a young woman (Sophie) who is making a documentary about what happened to her brother Josh, who disappeared twenty years ago... and also liked to film his adventures. At first, we're not even sure how their story ended - we know she's trying to find out what happened to him and his two friends, but the movie doesn't straight up tell us in the present day that he was never found. We see old news footage and such about the initial search for them, but unless I missed something*, they avoid coming down hard on their status in the present day. For all we know they found the bodies, or they found the three teens but they were so haunted by whatever they saw out there that they're unable to communicate anymore. I think it's around the halfway point that we get concrete proof that they are indeed still missing (presumed dead), as until then they just keep things vague: "I want to know what happened to my brother" or things along those lines. It kind of reminded me of the show I Shouldn't Be Alive, which would depict tragedies that befell rock climbers or white water rafters or whatever - there would be a group of 3-4 people who get lost/injured, but only 1-2 of them would be telling the story so we could still be in suspense about what happened to the others.
Another thing in the movie's favor in these early scenes is that it's funny, even somewhat charming at times. Two of the kids do a little spoof of the end of Contact, the aloof dad hopes that if they saw air force planes that it's "our air force", our wannabe documentarian hero is given advice on how to be a better interviewer, etc. And when they visit a pair of UFO enthusiasts and tell them that they shot the footage that was used on the news (the lights first appeared during Sophie's birthday party, so the camera was already out), one of them says "Oh that was you? Congrats! Can you please try to focus next time?" (or something along those lines) that literally made me burst out laughing. It's an unspoken tradition for these things that the people who seemingly want to be filmmakers kind of suck at it, so it's funny to see it actually called out for once (and by a jovial old guy who is still charmed by the kids and helping them out). Likability is a problem in modern horror as a whole, and even the best FF movies tend to have obnoxious protagonists (Micah, Heather, etc.) - it's not often I find myself genuinely enjoying all of the characters in one of these things.
The movie also gives us enough clues to suggest something more grounded than aliens might be responsible for their disappearance (if anything, they kind of make the abduction possibility more of a late-game theory, as opposed to something they assume right off the bat). Josh has a crush on the girl of the group (Ashley), but it seems that she is more into his buddy Mark, who they bring along on their UFO spotting trip because he has a car and better survival skills (i.e. reading a compass). In the present day we learn that some blood and a few beer cans were found in the car, so the idea that maybe this was merely a tragic love triangle/drunken accident is teased for a bit. It's also heartbreaking when Josh's mom (in the present day) says she hopes that Ashley had feelings for him in return, as he never had a girlfriend and she wanted him to experience that in his short life - because we know she didn't, and if he is dead, then I guess he did indeed die without having any romantic encounters. Since very few of these films ever bother with a dual timeline or even present day bookends, we never get any sense of how these mysterious disappearances weigh on their loved ones, so I loved seeing this brief moment of rather gut-wrenching humanity.
Then of course there's the possibility that they saw something they shouldn't have and were disposed of in the vast desert, with drug dealers and such brought up briefly as potential theories. But the one that's given some actual weight is that old standby: government coverup. As with all UFO cases (and the Phoenix Lights sightings in 1997 really did happen, look it up if you're unfamiliar), there's always the "It was the government testing a spy plane" or whatever idea, and there is indeed an air force base near where the kids are looking for the lights to appear again. Harper smartly uses some legitimate real news footage of the governor of Arizona mocking the idea of aliens back in 1997, juxtaposed with the (also real) fact that he admitted it could have been extraterrestrial about a decade later, when he was no longer governor and thus didn't have to worry about looking silly and/or trying to keep his people from panicking. Obviously, anyone sitting in the audience "knows" it's aliens because of the trailer (and a random drug dealer would be a really underwhelming answer), but if you don't see the trailer (and I never did, for the record), the film does a fine job of keeping "alien abduction" out of your head for a surprising amount of time, by utilizing the little bits of evidence they do have to present more grounded theories.
(My initial theory: he was murdered by Fox executives, because in 1997 he somehow has a VHS copy of X-Files: Fight the Future in his bedroom. The two friends were collateral damage.)
The key to all of this "we don't know" stuff is the fact that they've only found the first tape the kids made, because the second (final?) one obviously would have been on them at the time they disappeared. So the first 45-50 minutes of the movie have a Lake Mungo-esque feel to it, as if we were watching an Unsolved Mysteries episode where they had actual footage instead of recreations. As I said, they had me believing for a while that the 1997 footage was all legit - the aspect ratio and quality changes to what they'd actually have back then (4:3 VHS quality crap), unlike Paranormal Activity 3 and some others that couldn't be bothered to try to match the proper technology for the time. And even more importantly, what we were seeing really wasn't all that unbelievable - the incident was real, and there probably IS footage shot by an adventurous teenager, running around in the local desert hoping to get more proof of it. In reality, that kid would find nothing and go home, but if a filmmaker in 2017 got access to that footage and cut it up in between newly shot (fictional) scenes of actors pretending to be related to the people in that footage, no one in the audience would be the wiser, and it'd be pretty creative to boot.
Of course, that illusion is eventually shattered when their final tape is found, thanks to a librarian who finds their damaged school camera in storage (how it got sent to them isn't spelled out, but the camera has a "Property of (whatever school it is)" sticker on it, so we can assume someone found it and mailed it to them however many years later). The tape is a bit beat up but can be played, and at this point we see it play straight through, revealing what happened to them (well, mostly, it's a single camera hampered by 1997 technology, so it's not exactly crystal clear, but that's also realistic). If there's one thing about the movie that bugged me, it's that they don't return to the present day after the footage is watched. It's treated as a reveal; she hits PLAY and then they cut to later as she is stunned by whatever was on the tape, and then she makes an inquiry at the air force base to see if they can help her explain what she saw, but they refuse to help. Then she just kind of shrugs and we watch the entire tape in full, and when it finishes the movie is over. Does she show it to her mom, or the other kids' parents? Upload it to Youtube? Finish her documentary? We just don't know. It's kind of a weird way to close it up, because the movie is presented more as her journey than his, and we kinda figure from the start that his ended in tragedy, so it would have been nice to see how things ended up in the present day.
As for that last tape, this is where the movie becomes more traditionally found footage-y: they goof off a bit, they film more than necessary, and finally they get lost. The period setting serves it well; we know they won't have GPS or cell phones (these existed in 1997, but no explanation is required for their absence - they weren't commonplace as they are now), and they just have the one camera, so 99% of the time it's Josh's POV, allowing us to never forget whose POV we're seeing (a major issue with many FF films, especially Blair Witch 3 and pretty much any one about ghost hunters). But they justify the continued filming in a way I don't think I've heard before - when the obligatory group member goes missing, the other two keep shooting landmarks, so they can retrace their steps in the morning (rather than run in circles looking for him in the dark, they decide to keep moving in order to find help). And we get answers for the blood and beer cans, so that has its own small charms when we discover the actual context for their existence. I mean, if you're sick to death of these movies I don't think there's anything in this segment that will change your mind, but take it from this "expert" - they do way more right than wrong here.
Apparently, it's all for naught as far as box office goes, as the film is expected to only gross a mere $2m this weekend, which is pathetic for a film opening on 1500+ screens (to compare, Blair Witch Project sold about that many tickets on its opening weekend - which was in only 27 theaters). It's not the film's fault; I think the audience is just burned on this sub-genre for the time being, and it's not quite ready for a revival, even if the movie delivers the goods (though I should stress it's not particularly scary; unlike Blair Witch Project's strange noises and such throughout, it's really only the last five minutes that put the movie in the "scary movie" genre, as it's otherwise basically a straight up mystery documentary). Hopefully it will find its audience on home video and VOD down the line, but even if not I hope they can take some solace knowing that they won me over - I'm as tired of these movies as anyone, and was not expecting to enjoy it (I don't go into a movie HOPING to hate it, I just didn't think there would be anything to hook me in. I was really only going because I hadn't updated the site all week and had time to see it before work). But it didn't take long for me to realize that they actually thought the POV aesthetic through and knew how to keep the audience engaged without cheating or breaking any semblance of "reality", and remained largely free and clear of the genre's usual pitfalls. Good job, folks - sorry about all the shitty ones over the past couple years that apparently have audiences unwilling to give yours a chance.
What say you?
*Very possible, as the theater skipped their usual 20 minutes of trailers due to a technical issue, starting the movie "early" (a few minutes past its actual listed time). I had to wait for them to brew coffee, because god forbid they ever make it before being reminded, so when I walked into the theater expecting trailers, I saw the movie was already on. It doesn't seem like I missed anything of note (it couldn't have been on for more than 30-60 seconds), but it's possible there was some text at the top that clearly stated their status in 2017.