‘Phoenix Forgotten’ Blurs the Line Between Fact and Fiction

Director Justin Barber tells his own ‘X-Files’ Story inspired by real-life events.

On Thursday, March 13, 1997 a strange event occurred in the nighttime skies of Phoenix, Arizona. According to thousands of eyewitnesses, a triangular formation of lights were seen in the sky. Some reported seeing stationary lights hovering over Phoenix, which was later identified by the Air Force as flares being dropped from an air craft performing exercises at the nearby Barry Goldwater base. But there were other reports of the triangular formation passing over Arizona towards Nevada and these have never been explained. At the time of the event, Arizona governor Fife Symington famously mocked the event, holding a press conference where he had a staff member dress up like an alien. But years later, he admitted to also seeing the event and admitted there was no explanation for it.

These true-life events serve as the backbone for Phoenix Forgotten, a part-mockumentary, part-found footage science fiction horror film directed by Justin Barber and produced by Ridley Scott, which opens in theaters this weekend. The “Phoenix Lights” make their appearance right in the film’s opening, utilizing the famous shaky camera, home video actually seen on television reports in 1997 and inserting into the narrative by framing it as home video from a birthday party for Sophie (Florence Hartigan), who serves as the film’s main narrator.

Sophie’s older brother, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) is one of three Phoenix teenagers who went missing shortly after the appearance of the lights and was never located again. Phoenix Forgotten splits itself into two narratives from here. First, there’s Sophie, now an adult, returning home with a camera in tow, trying to uncover what happened to her brother. Here, we get the traditional documentary approach, with interviews from the missing teenagers parents and police, providing background on the case. The second part comes from the past, in the form of Josh’s leftover camcorder tapes — the found footage that eventually reveals to us what happened to the missing teens.

It’s a clever and fresh approach to a genre that, following the success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, has been done to death by countless horror films since. But Phoenix Forgotten also taps into a very specific cultural zeitgeist, an obsession with finding answers to the unsolvable. While the shadow of The X-Files certainly looms large over Phoenix Forgotten, the film’s blurring of fact and fiction, the inexplicable vanishing of three teenagers, the clues that inspire a litany of alternate theories, also feeds our obsession with true crime narratives. Although it is a fictional story seated within the context of a real-life event, Phoenix Forgotten feels right at home alongside Serial, The Jinx and Making a Murderer.

The 1997 “Phoenix Lights” incident.

This is something that Justin Barber was conscious of while working on Phoenix Forgotten, which he co-wrote with T.S. Nowlin. “We’re kind of in a documentary renaissance in a way, with what we’ve seen coming from Netflix and HBO…I definitely put on my documentary filmmaker hat when I started this movie and I approached the real world material and I just tried to get to the bottom of it. I did a lot of research, I went to Phoenix, I talked to real eyewitnesses and real experts. When we first had the idea for the movie, it started out just as this UFO story about these three kids and when we realized we wanted to make it this documentary that goes off the rails and we thought what better way to lend some authenticity to it then to sit it against this real world event. So we tried to be as true to that real world event as possible, that night of the ‘Phoenix Lights’ but then we insert these fictional characters into it and tell this fictional story but I definitely wanted to ground us in something that really happened as a way to make it feel like its a real documentary at first.”

And Phoenix Forgotten truly does blur the lines at times, weaving in real-life footage from CNN of former governor Symington admitting that he also saw the Phoenix Lights and thought they were of an unexplainable and possibly alien origin. It’s a delicate balancing act for first-time director Barber, although the film’s two styles work alongside each other, Barber was essential making two films that would later fuse into one. “On one day we would be interviewing a real person, a real character who is just portraying themselves in the movie and that was sort of like a documentary shoot and then the very next day we’d be on a soundstage working on the narrative shoot, so it was really challenging in that regard but also really fulfilling.”

But it’s a gamble that pays off. The audience are finally rewarded with the found footage that reveals the fate of the teens after becoming fully invested in Sophie’s search, after being teased conspiracy theories and the possible involvement of the military but most of all, after seeing the strain it has placed on her parents, whose marriage has dissolved as a result. The found footage itself is titillating and although the teens never made it home, it still dangles the promise that they just might escape.

Phoenix Forgotten is the perfect Friday night escape, a movie that succeeds without the pressures of landing a shocking twist or impressing with gross out gore. The audience may know the fate of the missing teens won’t end well but it will still enjoy discovering why.