“The Phoenix Incident” (BIFAN 2016): By-the-Numbers Story and One-Dimensional Characters Hamper Found-Footage Science Fiction Effort

Video game  director Keith Arem makes his feature film writing and directing debut with the faux documentary/found footage science fiction film The Phoenix Incident; unfortunately, the film doesn’t offer much more than playing a video game for the same amount of time. Though the final act boasts lots of chase scenes and action, the characters and their story don’t offer enough to make that last third matter much.

Using the real-life Phoenix Lights phenomenon of March 13, 1997 as a springboard, Keith Arem mashes up actual news reports and talking-heads footage from that event with his own fictional story. The premise of the film is that four male friends, two of whom were former military members, went for an ATV trip in the desert near Phoenix, Arizona on that fateful day, and went missing, never to be found. Thankfully for the “documentary crew,” a highly placed military officer (Scott Ruggles) decides to come clean on camera even though he admits it could lead to dire consequences for him.

Phoenix ATVs
Four friends have no idea that their ATV day in the desert will put them in the middle of a clash between the military and horrifying creatures in The Phoenix Incident.

One of several problems that the film has – or perhaps I should say, that I have with the film – is that the confessions of the officer are cut among found footage of the four men as they meet their fate. If the mystery has already been solved, why does this person and other officials talk around the events as if the film had never been found, rather than being confronted with the footage and then asked for their opinions about it? This question and more like them await viewers.

Although the actors acquit themselves well enough, they aren’t given much to work with in the way of dialogue. The four friends – portrayed by Troy Baker, Yuri Lowenthal, Travis Willingham, and Liam O’Brien – are one-note characters who are usually either in “Let’s do this, bro!” or “Let’s kick ass, bro!” mode, or are irate when confronted about their feelings. There’s no dialing down to reveal heartfelt emotions here. Similar to video game characters, viewers are given a quick background of who the people with guns are before the shooting starts, but, for me, a film requires more emotional investment than a video game does, and The Phoenix Incident gives very little to warrant that. The military official also is cliched, getting irked when he is asked a similar question numerous times and acting tough without showing much remorse for what transpired. A conspiracy theorist (Michael Adamthwaite) with a hot temper and other psychological issues is on hand, of course. The lone female directly involved in the disappearance aspect of the story (Jamie Tisdale) feels more like an afterthought, or as if a female character was necessary to have on hand. She is introduced as a girlfriend, shows a bit of concern when the group’s vehicle breaks down, and then allegedly walks to a road – without much more ado.

The creatures are one of the highlights of The Phoenix Incident; they could have used more screen time.

The Phoenix Incident doesn’t have anything to offer that would win new converts to the found-footage genre, though the use of real news footage does add a touch of authenticity to the proceedings. The pre-GoPro era  method of taping a camera to a helmet is one of the ways that the found footage is presented as being shot. The editing between this approach and several other types of cameras – including, it seems, military footage that you would think would be highly classified and virtually untouchable if only one officer is willing to speak out publicly about the incident – is good, but in the world of the “documentary,” so good that it again begs the question that I asked earlier about why the interviewee wouldn’t directly address what was happening on screen. The editing, especially in the final act, also looks like toggling between views while playing a video game.

The Phoenix Incident certainly has a professional air about it and I think it will find an audience among video game enthusiasts and found-footage aficionados. I enjoyed the creatures on display and felt that they looked good enough that I wished they had more screen time. Keith Arem shows promise as a film director and hopefully his characters and dialogue will grow in strength as he continues with future movie projects.

Phoenix UFO
Actual footage of the March 1997 Phoenix Lights phenomenon is cut with faux found footage to solid  effect.

Ultimately, anyone who has ever played video games with friends when the group is at least one controller short will understand the feeling of watching The Phoenix Incident – you would like to be as emotionally involved as you would be if you had a controller yourself, but ultimately, you feel distanced from, and eventually a bit bored of, what’s happening on screen. Thankfully the intensity builds in this film, with a final third that I found worth waiting for.

The Phoenix Incident is part of the 20th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in South Korea (July 21-31, 2016).

The Phoenix Incident: 2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Phoenix poster

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.