Stars: Michael Adamthwaite, Troy Baker, James L. Brewster, James C. Burns, Holgie Forrester, Karl Girolamo, Matthew Grant Godbey, William Goldman, Yuri Lowenthal, Elise Muller, Liam O’Brien | Written and Directed by Keith Arem
Strange and otherwise terrifying things tend to happen on Friday the 13th, at least according to superstition and a certain horror franchise featuring a machete-wielding maniac, but it was on Thursday the 13th of March, in 1997, that the residents of Phoenix, Arizona experienced a good deal of unusual activity. On that night, an unidentified flying object was spotted and filmed by thousands of people in both Phoenix and Sonora, Mexico, and to date, the strange v-shaped pattern of lights has never quite been explained – at least not in any sort of satisfying way.
Leave it to a horror movie to come along and offer up a possible explanation.
Written and directed by video game producer/director/engineer Keith Arem, The Phoenix Incident puts a fictitious spin on the real-life incident dubbed “The Phoenix Lights.” Presented as a documentary, one that blends found footage with interviews and even actual video from that day, the film primarily centers on a group of four young friends who venture out into the Arizona desert on the night of March 13th, 1997. There, they find themselves caught in the middle of a battle between the military and, you guessed it, predatory alien creatures.
Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat. Yes, The Phoenix Incident is both a faux documentary and a found footage film, and yes, that sub-genre has more than worn out its welcome in the years since The Blair Witch Project popularized the POV style. If Keith Arem’s feature debut has any major strike against it, it’s most definitely the fact that we’ve seen this sort of thing so many times in recent years, and that’s just something that’s hard to shake while watching it.
But don’t count this one out just yet.
Rather than relying entirely on the found footage, Arem smartly frames that portion of the film with a relatively intriguing story about the military’s ongoing battle with the aforementioned creatures, relayed mostly by a member of the US military who has decided to tell the truth. What’s most compelling about The Phoenix Incident is the way Arem blends the story of the ill-fated, camera-toting friends into that much larger tale of secretive government cover-ups, and it all comes together to add a (fictionalized) mythology to the real-life “Phoenix Lights” footage. Interesting stuff, especially if you consider yourself somewhat of a UFO enthusiast.
In regards to the found footage portion, yea, it all feels a little too familiar, and you certainly won’t find yourself caring all that much about the characters in peril, but if you can put all that aside, you just might appreciate some of the POV thrills Arem pulls out of his low-budget take on Cloverfield and films of that ilk.
For starters, the intentionally unprofessional footage feels quite real, as do the interactions between the characters – all of whom, it’s interesting to note, were played by video game voice performers. And then there’s the creatures themselves, which altogether elevate an otherwise instantly forgettable movie. The creature designs are undeniably cool – maybe it’s just me, but they totally reminded me of Kenner’s Aliens toys from back in the early ’90s – and the effects both impressive and effectively creepy.
Running a mere 82 minutes long – and the end credits take up a good 10 minutes of that time – The Phoenix Incident is lean enough that it never bores, and though it is at the end of the day a found footage film that will ultimately lump into your mind with all the rest, the intriguing basis in reality and the awesome creature effects give it at least somewhat of a leg up. If you’re into alien conspiracies, and perhaps more importantly, if you’re not so sick of found footage films that you loathe their very existence, you’ll likely find watching this one to be, if nothing more, a moderately entertaining way to kill (just over) an hour.
Aliens, man. They freak me out.