The lights came from nowhere.
One minute, Josh and his family are celebrating little sister Sophie’s 6th birthday in their hometown of Phoenix, and the next the cake and presents are upstaged by a strange string of glowing orbs hung in the night sky: four—no, five. Wait, six. Seven! They float in formation, sometimes closer together, sometimes farther apart. And then, just like that, they’re gone. Without a trace.
Aliens? Some thought so. But Josh, an enterprising 17-year-old with a video camera, wants to find out for sure. He has X-Files tapes on his desk and an “I Want to Believe” poster on his wall. He knows the truth is out there, and he’s determined to find out what it is.
He drafts Ashley, a pretty schoolmate and fledgling journalist. When their research points them into the scrubby desert wilds outside the city, he talks his friend Mark into joining them. He’s got a Jeep, after all.
They set out early one morning, in search of lights or debris or something. Josh brings a camera or two, ready to record anything unusual.
The next morning, police find the Jeep by the side of the road. It contains a couple of beer cans, a couple drops of blood (Mark’s) and Josh’s camera. The videotape in the camera doesn’t reveal anything particularly exciting: a couple of dead coyotes, and that’s it.
Despite weeks of searching, the three teens were never found. Just like that, they were gone. Without a trace.
That was 1997. Now, 20 years later, little sis Sophie is a fledgling documentary maker herself. She’s on the trail of Josh, determined to find what happened to him. To find what he found.
The truth is indeed out there.
But the truth sometimes comes with a cost.
Mark, Ashley and Josh are, by all appearances, pretty normal teens. Neither Mark nor Ashley have the zeal that Josh does to ferret out the “truth.” But all three do like each other, and when things start going south on their spree through the wilderness, they do their best to keep each other safe.
Sophie’s decades-later quest for the truth is valiant, too. She wants to find out what happened to her brother and her friends, and she overcomes some difficult obstacles to discover and tell that truth.
Josh and Mark, we learn, met at church as kids. But Josh seems to have fallen away from the faith by the time the lights appear.
When he and Ashley first talk about the strange phenomenon, she asks him if he’s heard of Ezekiel’s wheel. “It’s in the Bible,” she helpfully prods him, referring to Ezekiel 10:9-10. “Definitely not,” Josh says, suggesting he’s never cracked that prophetic book open before.
As they talk, they marvel at the mystery of Ezekiel’s wheel. “Why would God need a spaceship?” Josh says. Ashley agrees, saying, “God is space.” (We hear other references to Ezekiel’s “spaceship” as the movie goes on.)
A Native American tells Josh that he saw similar lights on the reservation; he and others in his tribe believed they might’ve been “star people,” their ancestors.
Josh seems attracted to Ashley. But she’s more attracted to athletic-looking Mark. We see Ashley and Mark sitting off by themselves (through Josh’s video camera), her head leaning lightly against his arm. Later, the three play Truth or Dare and Josh—perhaps trying to snuff out any potential romance—asks Mark if there’s anything between him and Debbie, another girl at school. A peeved Mark tells Josh and Ashley that he and Debbie “just hang out sometimes.”
While driving, Mark comes up with some impromptu rap lyrics to an old-school song on the radio, and they include references to sex and a crude slang term for the male anatomy.
We see carcasses of dead coyotes in the desert. Some are in advanced stages of decay, while others seem relatively fresh, but bear terrible wounds on their bodies. Ashley says that they’ve apparently been burned.
The intrepid teen explorers, after experiencing strange phenomena, suffer bad nose bleeds, and one is able to pull out hair by the fistful. During the original Phoenix lights event, a pair of Air Force F-18s blast over Josh and Sophie’s home, blowing patio chairs over.
[Spoiler Warning] A couple of people seem pulled upwards into empty space, vanishing.
We hear about 15 uses of the s-word. God’s name is misused nearly 20 times, and Jesus’ name is abused once. We also hear uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “p-ss,” “h—” and “d–k.”
The teens buy some light beer before heading out in to the wilderness, thanks to a guy who (it’s alleged) has a crush on Ashley. The three drink a few cans perched on some rocks at sunset. When they arrive back at Mark’s Jeep, he resorts to drinking at least one more when he can’t find any water. (Police later find the empty beer can on the driver’s side floor, along with a couple of other apparently unopened beer cans in a side pocket.)
There’s a reference to teens getting drunk at a frat party.
Mark leaves Ashley and Josh at one point to urinate in the wilds. Sophie seems to make it a point to sneak away without talking with her father, and it seems that she has a difficult relationship with her dad.
Phoenix Forgotten is a found-footage, Blair Witch-style horror mystery predicated on a real event: In 1997, hundreds of people did see very strange lights in the sky in and around Phoenix that have never been fully explained. Or, at least, not explained to everyone’s satisfaction.
And like The Blair Witch Project, not much actually happens in Phoenix Forgotten—not by the frenetic standards of the typical horror flick, anyway. It unpacks its “mystery,” such as it is, at a methodical, deliberate pace. While it’s an effective storytelling approach in its own way, this is not a roller-coaster thrill-a-minute frightfest: It does not jar the viewer with dozens of jump scenes or try to shock or gag them with scenes of overt gore. It doesn’t dabble in much sexual content beyond an occasional crass reference. And while Blair Witch was rated R for its unceasing streams of profanity, Phoenix Forgotten keeps its language in check enough to secure a PG-13 rating.
Phoenix Forgotten is not as problematic as many of its horrific peers. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth buying a ticket for. The film, while better in some ways than you might expect, is not particularly remarkable for any reason. And I suspect that the film itself will soon be forgotten.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.