The Phoenix Incident Movie Review
The Phoenix Incident is a unique take on the found footage genre that blends real news stories, fictionalized storytelling, and POV style filming-clearly influenced by Director Keith Arem’s background, with a real life, albeit controversial event. However, the lack of development of the characters and a cliched story progression leaves the events of the night in question and the strong visual effects feeling hollow and detached.
Ever since The Blair Witch Project, found footage films became all the rage; particularly in the horror genre, and for very good reason. What is scarier? Seeing something happening to people from an attractive point of view, or seeing something happen to seemingly real people in real situations? As the latter represents a far more believable scenario, it potentially enhances the viewer’s ability to relate to the characters on an emotional level as well as feel as if the experiences they are going through are also their own. This strategy has proven to be quite effective at times, launching the Paranormal Activity franchise to numerous installments and millions of dollars in profits. However, that has also lead to an oversaturation of the marketplace with those aforementioned sequels that quickly declined in quality, as well as more standard slasher affair that is meant more for cheap thrills than anything. So where does The Phoenix Incident, the first film for writer-director Keith Arem, fall?
Somewhere in between is the immediate answer, but fortunately, there are positive elements to the film. The story for The Phoenix Incident is both simple, but also somewhat complex. While the marketing behind the film deployed a style similar to the aforementioned The Blair Witch Project in telling a story based on events that did happen or come with a shroud of uncertainty, these events do have more truth to them. The Lights Over Phoenix is recognized as a real event in American history, although what exactly happened that night has been the cause of speculation for over 18 years. Arem brings the viewer his take on what could have happened and what it could have looked like if indeed aliens were introduced to humans.
While Arem’s vision is an intriguing one, it spends far more time fixating on the potential mythology behind the event, and not enough time on the characters in it. That is not to say that The Phoenix Incident is not an enjoyable watch or that Arem is a poor writer, but merely that there are flaws in the script that preclude the film from reaching certain heights. To their credit, the actors do a great job in playing believable characters, which is partially assisted by none being big name actors in live action films. Video game fans may not recognize their faces, but Yuri Lowenthal, Troy Baker, Travis Willingham, and Liam O’Brien are giants of the voiceover industry, and many make their live-action debut in this film. All perform extremely well and show great chemistry together at the proper moments which should bode well for them getting larger roles in the future. However, while the actors do well with the material, there just isn’t enough depth to fully invest in them on an emotional level to care about their plight. They are clearly shown to be a group of fun loving guys, but there isn’t much shown about them beyond that. More time devoted to the characters would have allowed for much more depth, but only one character is delved into instead of the group as a whole. Michael Adamthwaite has a nice chance to chew some scenery in some select scenes, but more would have been very welcome.
Despite being a first-time director, Arem shows a steady hand although in helping frame the film and utilizing a multimedia (or better yet, transmedia) approach to not only marketing but also shooting the film. The found footage style is inter-spliced with clips from real news footage from March 1997, the year the real and fictional events depicted took place, and creates a well-rounded experience that adds more depth than typical movies made in this vain. Arem also does well shooting the action components of The Phoenix Incident, clearly taking a page from his background in the FPS (first person shooter) genre of video games and implementing it fluidly into the found footage format. There is a great deal of shaky camera work, but that is to be expected in this style, and cinematographer/director of photography Brandon Cox does his best in minimizing it when appropriate and effectively captures the isolation of the Arizona desert.Given its status as an independent film, The Phoenix Incident boasts a surprising amount of quality visual effects work done on the aliens that eventually make their appearance. Baked FX, which also works on the dragons in HBO’s Game of Thrones, helped design and digitize the aliens to create something truly impressive considering the minimal budget.
Evaluating independent films that rely on visual effects can be difficult because there is clearly a bigger scope being attacked that deserves some credit and leniency in reviewing the film. With a cast and crew so underexposed to the live action world, The Phoenix Incident should be looked at as a considerable success with solid acting, visuals, and direction. Had the film been afforded a larger budget and a longer run time it likely would have given Arem the opportunity to write, film, and edit more scenes that would have painted a broader picture of his vision of the movie. As it stands, there are some strong pieces at work, and The Phoenix Incident is an enjoyable watch for those who enjoy horror movies, aliens, or the found footage style. The film does leave you wanting more, and while that is something to hold against it, it is also potentially exciting for what it holds in store for the cast and crew as they take their next hopeful steps towards bigger budget Hollywood filmmaking.
The Phoenix Incident is written and directed by Keith Arem and stars Yuri Lowenthal, Troy Baker, Travis Willingham, Liam O’Brien, and Michael Adamthwaite.