Film Review: The Phoenix Project

This melancholy take on the Frankenstein story should play well with horror buffs who prefer character conflict to rampaging creatures and gore, but its low-key virtues make break-out appeal unlikely.

Friends Perry (Corey Rieger) and Carter (Orson Ossman), plus two fellow scientists—self-contained Devin (Andrew Simpson) and deeply insecure Amps (David Pesta), both recruited through discreetly worded advertisements—gather in a suburban garage to undertake an incredibly ambitious (not to mention hubristic) project: to bring the dead back to life.
Not dead people—they start with a cricket and move up the food chain to mice and rabbits—and they're not even fully in Frankenstein territory. Victor Frankenstein wanted to create life—his creature was a patchwork thing that had never been alive, not in the form he eventually attempted to animate. All Perry, the driving force behind the precisely named Phoenix Project, wants to do is reanimate. Still, even that is no minor undertaking, especially because no one involved is independently wealthy and they're not being bankrolled by some deep-pocket organization operating on the assumption that the way to break a problem is to throw money at it until it surrenders. They have enough grant funding for five attempts, and after several dismal failures, the pressure is on.
Probably needless to say, the project quickly takes on a life of its own as the young scientists–each of whom has been less than scrupulously honest with the others about his motivation for participating–begin to doubt one another and the wisdom of what they're doing, the way they're doing it, or both.
The strength of The Phoenix Project lies in the chemistry among the four young actors, each of whom does a remarkable job of slowly revealing his character’s flaws through his actions. Even the cool, utterly dedicated Perry, who at first appears the most straightforwardly motivated of the four, neither has ice water in his veins nor is exactly what he appears. To say much more would spoil the film's greatest strength, which is the gradual and thoroughly organic way in which each character's weaknesses and vulnerabilities are revealed.
The appeal of The Phoenix Project (whose title does not allude to the city in Arizona) is, unfortunately, limited by the best things about it, namely its modesty and the ways in which it refuses to conform to coarse genre expectations. That said, fans of horror and science-fiction films are not a monolithic block of slavering gore-hounds, and while over-the-top blood-and-guts fans often dominate the conversation, there's a significant segment of enthusiasts who appreciate a slow build, subtle characterizations and a story that toys with genre expectations without betraying them. The Phoenix Project is for them.

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