These days, any new found-footage horror film inherently fights an uphill battle to distinguish itself. It's been almost 7 years now since Paranormal Activity inspired renewed interest in the genre, and few of the imitators in its wake have managed to recapture its critical or financial success. These low-budget thrillers now plague the depths of Netflix with such prevalence that new entries need to show some true inspiration (as, for example, 2014's flawed but creative Unfriended did) to avoid fading into obscurity almost instantaneously.
The Phoenix Incident's gimmick is its basis in a real-life and easily recognizable event: the appearance of the Phoenix Lights in March 1997, perhaps the most widely witnessed supposed UFO sighting in history. The film, opening April 8 at Harkins Shea 14, relies on this one tidbit of historical data to claim it's "based on actual events," though it mostly tells an original story about four Phoenix natives attacked by aliens the same night. It attempts to conjure horror by toeing the line between fiction and reality, suggesting that since we all saw the Lights, all this could have actually happened. But given the entire film is fictionalized except for the very presence of the Lights, the film feels more like a cheap ploy than a frighteningly viable story.
The film follows four friends who venture into the Estrella Mountains for a day of riding ATVs, where they witness the Phoenix Lights and an ensuing dogfight between U.S. military fighter jets and a group of mysterious spacecrafts. When one of the UFOs crashes, the boys of course decide to ride straight toward the wreck, and disaster ensues. Yuri Lowenthal plays stuntman Glenn Lauder, who apparently films just about everything he can and has even jerry-rigged a camcorder to his motorcycle helmet as a sort of 1990s GoPro. This provides a feasible-enough answer for why the boys bothered to capture any of this on film, as long as you buy that the camera can apparently record for about 24 hours straight.
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Writer and director Keith Arem comes from a background in video games, having worked on projects like Bioshock, Titanfall, and the Call of Duty franchise; the same goes for his actors, as leads Troy Baker, Travis Willingham, Liam O'Brien, and Lowenthal have all mostly appeared as voices in cartoons and video games until now. But this core cast is actually the film's greatest asset, as their extensive performance experience but lack of recognizable faces make them perfect candidates for a found-footage movie. The group has a naturalistic charm in their moments of hanging out and goofing off together, and the moments where we learn more about their individual personalities, while sparse, are quite effective.
But only one thing ultimately matters about a film like The Phoenix Incident: No, the film isn't all that scary, or even startling or creepy. The film mostly presents the aliens themselves in shadows and blurry shots, such that we don't properly see the subpar CGI until the end. As a result, their presence never feels as threatening as it probably should. Perhaps that's also because we never get any real idea of why the aliens have come to Earth or what interest they have in attacking the ATV riders in the first place. The misguided second villain, cultist Walton S. Gayson (essentially Michael Adamthwaite performing his best impression of Heath Ledger's Joker), feels more like an obligatory trope than a legitimate character, let alone a threat. Not to mention Arem's idea of building dramatic tension mostly involves a long sequence where the men's car breaks down, taking up most of the first third of the film and leading to just about nothing.
Ultimately, The Phoenix Incident is just a bit dull. The appeal of the docu-drama presentation can't sustain the 82 minutes of the film. And while there's rarely anything outwardly terrible onscreen, the film provides little that stands the chance to stick in your memory. Frankly, you could probably find plenty of existing Phoenix Lights conspiracy theories online with more character and credibility.