“Based on true events”. Have there ever been four weasel-ier weasel words in the history of cinema? If I saw someone walking down the street, spun a tale based purely on their appearance and made it into a movie, I could claim that was “based on true events”. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s untrue, I suppose.
Because UFOs and their ilk are quite a contentious issue, I’m going to break this review down into two sections. First up will be a review on the movie itself, technical aspects, acting and so on. Second half will be my views on the event, so if you’re only interested in one or the other, you can just skip.
Part 1 – the movie
Found footage! After a preamble involving details of an upcoming war with an unknown group, we’re told that in 1997, a number of people reported seeing very unusual lights in the sky over Phoenix, Arizona. Lots of smart, sober people couldn’t make head nor tail of it, and there remains doubt about it to this day.
This is a movie about four men who went missing on that same night, who’ve never been found, and is made up of three strands. First up is what I think is real news footage from the time, second is (both real and fictional) interviews conducted with people involved in the case, and third is (fictional) footage from a camera strapped to the side of the helmet of one of the four men. A local Manson-esque crazy person was charged with their murders and has been incarcerated ever since; he gets interviewed too.
As far as anyone knows, no-one disappeared that night, at least related to the lights, so it might be said that it’s a strange decision to have so much of your short-ish movie (69 minutes when the credits start to roll) about a real incident devoted to people who weren’t there. Given that we already know they disappear from the off, I’m not sure why we need a scene shot in a diner where they shoot the breeze about their futures, which has absolutely nothing to do with the lights. The classic found footage movies – “Cannibal Holocaust”, “The Blair Witch Project”, “Cloverfield” – were all entirely fictional so it was as much about these characters discovering what was going on as it was about the cannibals, or the witch, or the giant space monster thing. They’re pretty much the only great found footage movies, too – it’s a genre absolutely lousy with the worst and cheapest that modern cinema has to offer (I know people like the “Paranormal Activity” movies, not seen ‘em so can’t comment).
So, as things progress, our four heroes go into the Arizona desert to do a bit of ATV driving, and see military craft flying all over the place. They investigate, find a crashed alien craft, out come a ton of creatures that look a bit like if the alien from “Alien” had laid its egg inside a horse rather than a human, and eventually they’re hunted down as far as the Manson-alike Walt Gayson’s compound, where things do not get better.
There are some substantial logic holes in “The Phoenix Incident”. First up, who’s broadcasting this footage? Whoever made it not only took the tape from Gayson or the military, but also got hold of tons of military footage (there’s tape from inside the army’s helicopter, for one). Given that the interviews with them are all “nope, nothing weird happened”, this isn’t just an idle question. Why didn’t the Government cover up the existence of this movie if they could cover up what amounts to an alien invasion?
The footage is (in the world of the movie) absolute 100% incontrovertible proof of the existence of aliens. It would be the biggest news since the invention of news, but for some reason the people with the tape felt the need to pad this amazing footage out with talking heads of people who saw something once but were hushed up. Who cares what you think? There’s ALIENS CAUGHT ON VIDEO!!! I did like the interview with a cop where the text on screen said “name withheld” even though his face and badge are right there, on camera, in broad daylight.
“The Phoenix Lights” can be accused of muddying the waters. Imagine looking this event up afterwards and realising almost none of what the movie says happened, actually happened – yes, there were lights in the sky over Phoenix which were pretty unusual, but that’s really it. No-one died, no-one took good enough video to be able to say one way or the other what it really was, so it doesn’t help people come to any conclusions about what did happen. You can’t have it both ways.
Writer / director Keith Arem works in the video game industry, directing voice actors, motion-capture and so on, so he’s used his studio to work on this. And it looks like a decent amount of money was spent on it, the special effects are great and the acting (mostly provided by computer game voice actors) is fine too. The interview footage is a bit cheesy, truth be told, but I’ve seen worse. “The Phoenix Incident” is, amazingly, the fourth different movie about the event – following “The Appearance Of A Man”, “Night Skies” and “They Came From Outer Space” (aka “Phoenix Lights”); plus a couple of different full-length documentaries, if that’s your thing.
The worst crime it commits is just being really dull, though. It’s just a fake documentary with fake found footage attached to it, and you don’t really care about anyone in it. The handheld stuff is mostly unwatchable, and at the very least if this was being presented as evidence, they’d have tried to tidy up the camera judder using “stabilisation” software, which is cheap and easy to use (someone’s stabilised all of “Cloverfield” using consumer-grade software and it looks weird / great). So, perhaps go elsewhere for your aliens on Earth faux-documentary chills and thrills.
Rating: thumbs down
Part 2 – The Lights
I’m a believer that we’re not alone. We’re finding planets all the time, and I’m positive we’re going to find evidence of life somewhere in the universe at some point. Saying that, this event is an absolute nothing. The particular light formation has been recreated using military flares and a slow but steady wind moving in the right direction – which doesn’t prove it wasn’t UFOs, I suppose, but certainly makes proving the case for them a lot harder. I don’t doubt it must have been incredibly strange to see them at the time, but the rather hysterical reaction of people at having their firmly held belief called into question is worrying, and is an indication we need to work on improving our education system and teaching critical thinking to people.
I think if we’re going to expect people to believe extraordinary things, then we ought to provide extraordinary evidence, and so far, we’ve failed to do that for anything on (or near) Earth. The standards of believers ought to be higher, and by pinning so much of the pro-UFO side’s hopes to fuzzy footage of weather balloons, or photographs where the taker refuses to hand over the original but insists it’s un-doctored, we do ourselves a disservice. Because if believers make up stuff about Greys, or triangular shaped craft in Phoenix, and when the aliens actually turn up and are nothing at all like that, we’re going to feel pretty stupid. The universe has got some pretty weird things going on in it we could learn about, no sense filling our minds with nonsense like this.