Film Review: The Phoenix Incident

A sci-fi actioner that can’t decide if it’s a fake documentary or a found-footage thriller fails miserably as both.
Specialty Releases

There are plenty of conspiracy nuts out there who believe alien life may someday be discovered on other planets or, going further, believe that it’s already arrived on Earth but is being kept hidden by the government. The latter is the general premise behind The Phoenix Incident, billed as a “docu-thriller” based around a military cover-up over four men disappearing in Arizona during a 1997 incident dubbed “The Phoenix Lights.”

Written and directed by Keith Arem, who has worked on Call of Duty and Titanfall as a “talent director” recoding dialogue for the popular videogames, much of The Phoenix Incidentfollows a group of friends riding their ATVs through the desert, one of them having conveniently mounted a camera on his helmet to capture their vacation.

Make no mistake, this is predominantly a found-footage movie where everyone talks directly to the camera (or rather the person holding the camera), but it is mixed with various interviews and news clips to make it seem like it’s documenting real events. Granted, the Phoenix Lights was an actual unexplained phenomenon, which gives Arem lots of real news footage with Senator John McCain and others talking about them, in the hope of providing the film more veracity. The movie is even dedicated to “the members of the intelligence community that provided the evidence to make this movie.”

The fact these guys spend most of their time acting like complete clowns makes it hard to feel anything even close to caring about what happens to them; none of their emotions feels real when you know that it’s all fake. Much of that can be attributed to bad writing; better actors could have created a more realistic scenario by improvising.

If The Phoenix Incident merely used the men’s camera footage to show what happened to them—and Arem didn’t make the bad decision of covering it with poor horror-movie sound effects and music—it might have turned out fine.  Instead, it ruins what works about these movies, killing any momentum by sloppily intercutting between different cameras and footage with no sense of cohesion.

We watch the men as they start following the lights and end up being chased by bad CG aliens to the compound of a crazy conspiracy nut named Walton Gayson, who is suspected of murdering them (even though the government apparently knows what really happened). Amidst the shaky-cam, there are some impressive sights as Arem uses his videogame experience to create fake visuals of fighter pilots in dogfights with alien ships above the desert and the pilot’s-eye view of the men in the desert.

The idea that some fictitious filmmaker cut together all this footage into such a disjointed and half-hearted attempt at a documentary is almost an insult to the many great documentary filmmakers who spend years exploring important subjects. When a movie like this comes along, it degrades their hard work.

Some conspiracy nuts might buy what The Phoenix Incident is trying to sell, but it’s mostly an uninspired and uninspiring attempt to capitalize on the fact there are people out there who will believe anything. Thankfully, the film is less than 80 minutes, although apparently there will be a two-hour version on the DVD for those who that just can’t get enough of this garbage.

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