Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Released: April 21, 2017. Directed by: Justin Barber. Starring: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez. Runtime: 1h27 min. 

Phoenix Forgotten is like one of those films that come out of nowhere, but this is because of a quiet marketing campaign. It tries to replicate the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and it’s disappointingly mediocre (especially with the involvement of Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions).

Integrated at the centre of the story is the Phoenix Lights, a triangular light formation that was seen from Phoenix, Arizona in March 1997. It’s never been explained, and is the most famous so-called UFO sighting in the world.

The fictional story comes with three teens – Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez), and Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) – who disappeared without a trace investigating the Phoenix Lights. 20 years later in 2017, Josh Bishop’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan), 26, is investigating the disappearance. She discusses it with her own parents and Ashley’s parents as she makes a documentary.

It’s interesting learning about the Phoenix Lights. It’s famous, but I never heard about it, so it’s intriguing. I thought it was just making a generic UFO sighting and developing mythology; instead, it interestingly blends some truth with a lot of fiction, and the unexplained phenomena has some intrigue. That’s what makes some of the first hour interesting.

The story doesn’t flow well as it skips between Sophie making a documentary in 2017 about the disappearance, and back to Josh and Ashley making a documentary about the Phoenix Lights in 1997 (Josh was an aspiring director, so he filmed everything). It thereby mixes some docu-drama with found footage.

Sophie mostly just talks to her parents and other experts who give lots of speculation. They say forgettable stuff, and there are so many boring interview subjects that I found myself forgetting who was who. It’s interesting how Sophie’s parents were affected after Josh has been missing for 20 years with no closure. It’s heartbreaking, but besides them, the emotional connection is non-existent; as the characters are one-dimensional.

Phoenix ForgottenJosh is single-minded and becomes obsessed when he gets an idea in his head. I liked seeing in his room that he was sci-fi enthusiast with X-Files and Alien posters all over his room. Ashley’s more interesting, since she’s open-minded and interviews well as an aspiring journalist. One interview features local astronomers talking about how they think the lights were flares.

Mark just feels like he’s kind-of there, since he has a car. He’s a friend but he’s almost has no dimension. The little-known actors aren’t memorable, but they do serviceable jobs. Chelsea Lopez as Ashley brings some charm.

The cinematography is stronger in Sophie’s documentary, but her film is way less interesting. Her documentary feels distinctly incomplete even when she has a chance to make an ending, and the film doesn’t execute.

It’s also silly that she waits 20 years to investigate the disappearance, and like the documentary, this feels like it’s made a few years too late, especially after the release of The Phoenix Incident in 2015 (a docu-drama about the real-life disappearances). It’s especially late since Adam Wingard released Blair Witch last year, and this is essentially a carbon copy of The Blair Witch Project mixed with a some of The X-Files.

The film’s a puzzle as they try to explain what happened to these 17-year-olds. The mystery’s never been solved because they stopped filming at one point. It’s the one video that promises something happening, as most of the videos are uneventful. Sometimes they investigate the Lights, but other times they just go for a hike hoping something will happen.

The videos are amateurishly shot and Josh annoyingly can never keep the camera on the action, and it’s hard to see what’s going on. The camera’s consistently shaky, but the visual effects are cool when we see it long enough. The filmmakers make it look like the videos were filmed in 1997. It has a VHS quality, and it adds realism.

The horror relies on psychological aspects of paranoia, lots of bright lights and loud noises instead of jump scares, which makes it refreshing. In that way, it does something different from most found-footage films, and part of the reason why I’m giving it a passing score.

The tension is palpable because of chilling sound design. It feels more like freaky, sci-fi scares than anything and when I’m talking about horror, it’s only existent in the film’s final 15-20 minutes when we get the last piece of the puzzle. It’s a good finale.

The first hour has 15 minutes of interesting material, but it’s boring and not scary. Since only a fraction of this is thrilling, it doesn’t work as a feature film. It would be better as a 30-minute segment in an anthology franchise like V/H/S because there’s not enough material here, and Josh’s sister making a documentary in the present day often feels like filler. Director Justin Barber fleshes it out to about 80 minutes and it doesn’t feel like a well-rounded feature. The last piece of the puzzle is the only good part. Otherwise, Phoenix Forgotten is already fading from my memory.

Score: 50/100

Advertisements

Life (2017)

 

Released: March 24, 2017. Directed by: Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds. Runtime: 1h 44 min.

A crew at the International Space Station – two Americans, two Brits, a Russian and a Japanese dude – are tasked with retrieving a sample from Mars that could contain the first proof of extraterrestrial life, and the first evidence of life on Mars (hence the title of Life).

After it gets on board, things go awry – and they still have to get it home because of what it means for science. The cute little guy does look like the parasite at the beginning of The Faculty, and the life-form is given the name Calvin by an elementary school.

Sounds cute enough, right? Don’t let names fool you because it becomes quite frightening when it starts bulking up.

The British biologist on the crew, Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the only one who actually calls the little thing Calvin, as he spends his time studying it. He nearly seems fatherly to it, which brings up interesting dynamics because others are extremely wary of it. They’re afraid of the unknown thing – and for good damn reason.

I liked Hugh’s story because there’s a heartwarming aspect that he’s wheelchair-bound on Earth, but when he’s in space he can float around and do almost anything his heart desires.

The rest of the crew includes Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), an American medical officer, whose story is cool, too, because he likes the hum of space. The other American is system engineer Rory Adams, played by Ryan Reynolds.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Britain’s other representation Miranda North, who’s in charge of keeping the specimen in quarantine. Katerina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) is the Russian crew commander of the International Space Station. The crew pilot is Sho Murakam and is played by Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada.

Life - Ryan

Ryan Reynolds in Life. (Source)

The cast assembled makes an impressive ensemble. So much screen time is shared that they’re all supporting performers more than leading, even though Gyllenhaal, Ferguson and Reynolds are the most recognizable of the bunch. Gyllenhaal and Ferguson also offer the most compelling performances. No one’s wearing the redshirt from Star Trek per se, but there are people who feel more expendable. Talents don’t get wasted – but some are less utilized than others. Naturally, the cast’s chemistry is good since they’re stuck on a space station together.

They all have nice banter and the dialogue’s well-written. It’s witty and best fit for Ryan Reynolds since it’s from the minds of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (writers of Deadpool and Zombieland). The writing pair also bring in a smart amount of scientific dialogue that’s so nerdy, you’re thankful that some characters dumb it down for us.

The story of Life wears its homage to Alien on its sleeve and while it is nothing new, it’s an entertaining and unnerving ride. It takes a hardcore horror route and it’s surprising in its brutality and it packs relentless, edge-of-your-seat thrills. It’s quite scary, and that’s what helps it be a great addition to the trapped in space genre.

The premise is just so terrifying, when they’re trapped with something they can’t permanently escape from, and it’s a hell of a long phone call away from Earth. It’s just freaky that they can’t be helped, and it shows how much can go wrong in the limitlessness of space. Some of the cinematography’s a bit too dark to see some aspects, but otherwise the visuals are great.

The only part of the writing that doesn’t compel is the beginning because it’s plainly trying to get into the story, but it’s helped by smart dialogue. When the carnage begins, it comes with a force that doesn’t let go. It makes at least an hour of this a lot of fun and scary, and the writers find a way to breathe fresh life into a premise we’ve seen before.

The writers can do it all when it comes to foul-mouthed superheroes, zombie horror comedies and now bat-shit craziness of astronauts being trapped in space with Calvin. He might not go down in the same infamy as the Xenomorph from Alien, but he’s memorable and I won’t be going to space anytime soon.

Score: 75/100