Phoenix Forgotten is the directorial debut of Justin Barber who had previously made one short film and had a handful of assorted credits as a graphic designer. The surprise about Phoenix Forgotten is that it comes backed from some reasonable names co-produced by Ridley Scott and his Scott Free production company; co-produced by Wes Ball, the director of The Maze Runner films, along with director/producer Courtney Solomon and high-profile producer Mark Canton. The $2.8 million budget comes from places as diverse as the UK and China. The film received a theatrical release, although only earned back only a miserable $3.5 million.
The surprise is that for all the high-profile names associated with it and its being granted a theatrical release, Phoenix Forgotten is essentially the same Found Footage film that earnest wannabes trying to break into the industry make by the bucketload for only about $2000. There is nothing about the film that shouts out anything that deserves a high-profile release no name stars, only a couple of scenes that include some very low-tech visual effects. The rest of the film is shot in homes or schools and mostly with the cast running around in the desert. You keep asking where all the money went maybe on the aerial shots down on the desert or in post-production where Justin Barber had the whole film shot digitally, printed to VHS and then converted back to digital to get the shot-on-VHS look.
It is worth comparing Phoenix Forgotten to The Phoenix Incident. Both cover the same incident and are Found Footage films about three people who go missing in the desert while investigating the Phoenix Lights. The Phoenix Incident purported to be a documentary that had assembled found video footage, while Phoenix Forgotten is a video about one person conducting an investigation during which they uncover film footage of what happened. The notable difference is that Phoenix Forgotten is about the investigation as it happens, while The Phoenix Incident in effect presents the investigation to us as a fait accompli.
The problem with this approach is that Justin Barber fails to create an interesting mystery out of what happened. There is the vague stab in the direction of a government conspiracy with scenes of Florence Hartigan attempting to interview a governors aide and a military captain who changes his mind about talking on camera. Eventually around the one-hour point, we come to the various scenes with the three wandering about and becoming lost in the desert. However, these are dull, not to mention fairly much copied from The Blair Witch Project (1999), albeit with UFO phenomena substituted for supernatural happenings.
One other irksome thing is that the film also attempts to insert Erich von Daniken-ean associations. In his book Chariots of the Gods (1968), Von Daniken put forward the theory that aliens had visited Earth in the past and guided the human race, having helped build places like The Pyramids and Stonehenge, and as a result were portrayed by the ancients in the Bible, the Easter Island heads, the drawings at Nazca and so on. Though widely ridiculed by archaeologists and historians, Von Danikens pseudo-scientific ideas have turned up in numerous other films including Starship Invasions (1977), Battlestar Galactica (1978-9), Hangar 18 (1980), Sky Bandits/Sky Pirates (1985), Stargate (1994), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), 10,000 B.C. (2008), The Fourth Kind (2009), Stonehenge Apocalypse (2010), Killer Mountain (2011) and Prisoners of the Sun (2013), as well as the von Daniken documentary Chariots of the Gods (1970), not to mention were previously employed by Ridley Scott in Prometheus (2012). Here there is an interview with a member of the local Indian nation who talks about the lights being Sky People and a couple of other scenes where the group come across petroglyphs that would seem to suggest the UFOs are ancient in nature.