Combine “The Blair Witch Project” with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and you’ve got the gist of freshman director Justin Barber’s found-footage, sci-fi, horror chiller “Phoenix Forgotten” (* OUT OF ****), involving an alleged UFO sighting in Phoenix, Arizona, on Thursday, March 13, 1997. “Maze Runner” scenarist T.S. Nowlin and Barber have appropriated that larger-than-life incident known as “Phoenix Lights” for their superficial saga about three teens who took off into the desert to document this phenomenon with a camcorder. Unfortunately, they vanished without a trace, but left behind their camcorder. For the record, “Phoenix Lights” made national headlines, and experts have described as it as “the most widely seen mass UFO sighting in US history,” second only to the renowned Roswell UFO crash in 1947. Nevertheless, I’m fed up with low-budget, found-footage thrillers as uninspired as “Phoenix Forgotten.” They neither make my skin crawl nor make me feel sympathetic about the plight of characters too asinine to know better. Basically, the actors and actresses play stock characters, with little aside from biology and apparel to differentiate them. Neither the original (and extremely overrated) “Blair Witch Project” (1999) nor its abysmal 2016 remake did anything to arouse either my curiosity or raise my hackles. Mind you, found-footage movies aren’t all awful. The Vietnam war epic “84 Charlie Mopic” (1989) was one of the best. “The Paranormal Activity” franchise has been consistently gripping. You may have your favorites, too. Nothing in “Phoenix Forgotten” will make you gnaw your fingernails, unless you’ve never watched a horror movie. Furthermore, this formulaic film features pedestrian performances by unknown thespians without a bit of charisma who were cast largely for their ordinary, inconspicuous looks. Nowlin & Barber have forged characters that aren’t interesting for their own sake, and their dialogue isn’t quotable. Worse, the film doesn’t spring any surprises that would make you scream. The first half of “Phoenix Forgotten” is dreary enough to lull you into a stupor. The marginally better second half struggles to compensate for the somnambulance of its monotonous first half. The convenient found-footage sequences are predictably designed to trouble you with lots of wobbly camera work with sporadically scrambled video imagery.
Sophie (Florence Hartigan of “Magik and Rose”) has returned to her hometown of Phoenix. She plans to produce a documentary film about her older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts of “Hail, Caesar!”) and his two friends, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez of “Novitiate”) and Mark (newcomer Justin Matthews), who got lost in the desert 20 years ago while making their own documentary about the “Phoenix Lights.” Josh had been a videophile for years. The first time that we see Josh, he is recording his younger sister Sophie’s sixth birthday party when mysterious lights illuminate the skies over Phoenix. Local television stations broadcast reports about the suspected UFOs, while public officials stage a press conference with a guy masquerading as an extraterrestrial to defuse the paranoia surrounding the sightings. The UFO coverage whetted Josh’s curiosity, and he started shooting interviews with anybody who had either witnessed or heard about the unidentified flying objects over Phoenix. Naturally, the military discredited those UFO sightings. Indeed, Air Force officials issued a statement that aircraft on training maneuvers had deployed flares that would have resembled a UFO.
When Sophie comes home, she interviews her parents, who have been divorced because the search for their son devastated their marriage, as well as Josh’s friends, to find closure. Sophie and her cameraman are about to call off their documentary when a high school librarian discovers a package stashed in the school’s storage facility. The package contains another camcorder with a cassette cartridge in it. Sophie’s hopes soar when she learns that not only can the tape still play but also that Josh shot the footage. All along everybody, including local law enforcement, could never adequately explain why Josh would have left behind his camcorder in his vehicle. The revelation is that Josh had two camcorders! Sophie lends the footage to a military official to examine. He warns Sophie that she shouldn’t show that tape to anybody else. The remainder of “Phoenix Forgotten” concerns what Josh and his friends recorded after they plunged into the desert. The three wind up lost, and tempers flare as they struggle to find their way back to Josh’s SUV. After they get back on the road to Phoenix, Arizona, something with a glaring light approaches them from behind and overtakes them. Inexplicably, Josh’s vehicle conks out, and the three set out on foot on a lonely highway. Before long other mysterious things occur, and they are swept up in turbulent winds, explosive sounds, and bright lights.
Presumably, producer Ridley Scott, who directed the original “Alien,” must have felt that teen audiences afflicted with ADDH would mob the multiplexes and parlay this $2.8 million feature into a weekend blockbuster, like “The Blair Witch Project.” The trouble with Barber’s film is that he takes too long to establish both the characters and set up the predicament. Unfortunately, the filmmakers wear us out keeping track of a lot of insignificant details about the characters and their environment designed to enhance the plausibility of “Phoenix Forgotten.” The staccato editing stresses the spontaneity of the moment, but Barber neglects to align our sympathies with those characters. As the chief protagonist of “Phoenix Forgotten,” Sophie searches desperately to determine what became of her ill-fated sibling. Incredibly, “Phoenix Forgotten” partially duplicates the plot of a 1989 micro-budgeted, straight-to-video epic entitled “UFO: Abduction.” The big brother in the latter film is taping his niece’s fifth birthday with a hand-held camera when UFOs blasted out of nowhere. Afterward, the hero and his two brothers rushed into the woods to investigate their sighting. They located the flying saucer and encountered three aliens. Frantically, the brothers withdrew to their house, and the aliens besieged them. Predictably, Josh’s found footage suggests that aliens abducted the trio. Altogether, “Phoenix Forgotten” is best forgotten as just another crackpot conspiracy theory orchestrated with little imagination.