Ever since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain saw Massacre graced us with that chilling opening crawl, informing us that the following carnage actually happened, many horror films have strived to scare us with similar forms of ‘realism’. As filmmaking evolved, audiences caught on, leading into a blurring of the line between documentary and fiction. Keith Arem’s The Phoenix Incident is one of the most recent projects attempting to blend reality with sci-fi, as found-footage horror meets with Discovery Channel-esque interviews and formatting concerning the infamous Phoenix Lights.
Although the film focuses more on the fantastical elements than the characters witnessing them, The Pheonix Incident stars Troy Baker (If you’re a gamer, you know who this is), James L. Brewster, James C. Burns and a few others as an ensemble cast of ill-fated thrill-seekers, interviewed military personnel and family members. The bulk of the running time is comprised of allegedly real footage shot on DVR cameras by a group of friends in the Arizona desert back in 1997. Characterization is paper thin here, but as drama isn’t meant to be the main attraction, this doesn’t exactly detract from the experience..
Though structured like an exposé mockumentary, there is a linear narrative organizing the film, creating suspense as you’re not presented with all the information at once. This style has been done better in the past, with films like The Poughkeepsie Tapes, but Arem’s style keeps things from getting stale, as his direction manages to avoid many of the found footage clichés that we know and hate. Once the action starts, it’s obvious that the film isn’t afraid of showing you what’s going on, which is a breath of fresh air in this sub-genre, though the effects don’t always do these scenes justice.
The Phoenix incident isn’t just about the reported UFO sightings, however, as the extraterrestrials eventually crash land near the protagonists, and begin attacking them on sight. The aliens themselves are disappointingly uninspired, especially coming from a director who’s worked on masterful horror games like Metro 2033 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but they do provide the film with some of its scariest sequences. Even so, it does seem fitting to hear Adam Jensen’s raspy voice dealing with aliens and government conspiracies outside of the Deus Ex franchise.
As a reviewer, it’s important to remember that liking a film and considering it good are two totally different concepts, which is why I honestly enjoyed The Phoenix Incident, but can’t exactly call it a groundbreaking piece of cinema. The realism is easily shattered by the film’s set pieces and recognizable actors, but that still doesn’t completely take the viewer out of the experience. The artistic liberties taken with the ‘source material’ are understandable, however, as the real life incident was much more mundane than the events depicted in the movie. In the end, the film is meant to entertain, not educate. UFO and conspiracy enthusiasts may dislike the fictional take on the ‘real’ story, but this is still an effective horror/sci-fi flick, despite a certain lack of depth.