In The Phoenix Incident, a massive cover-up of a shadowy alien invasion is revealed as the lights that appeared over Phoenix, Arizona in 1997 turn out to be the spearhead of that invasion. Part documentary style recollection of those events, part found-footage horror, the two pieces frame the other in an interesting way, but never quite make a completely satisfying whole.
The documentary portion is set up like a Dateline special or Netflix's recent How to Make A Murderer with aliens filling in for the accused. Using an impressive amount of file footage and on-scene video from the actual 1997 Phoenix Lights event, the early part of the film certainly sets up this world in which aliens seem to be a matter of fact, even if the apparent deaths of four men the night the lights appeared are dismissed as an animal attack.
The film's in-movie documentarian aims to prove it was no such thing and argues that the men may even still be alive.
The found footage portion revolves around the recently discovered tapes recorded by one of the four men, Glenn Lauder, an amateur photographer and ATV enthusiast with a close group of male friends. Surviving family recall Lauder as fearless and a tinkerer, crediting him with the idea of GoPro cameras before anyone else was thinking of it. Recalling the state of video technology at the time, the footage contains plenty of analog artifacts and dropouts.
As the film weaves between sit-down interviews and Lauder's video of the day leading up to contact, a tension mounts as the characters ride for their destinies. But the format also leaves the four men, Lauder, Mitch, Jacob and Ryan as unknowable. Affixing a camera to his bike helmet, Lauder is rarely seen. And even through we're told about the other men via documentary segments, Mitch is only character with a hook as he takes to protecting the others following the death of his brother in Iraq.
Despite the strange distance, the four actors — video game and cartoon voice acting stalwarts Yuri Lowenthal as Lauder, Travis Willingham as Mitch, Troy Baker as Ryan and Liam O'Brien as Jacob– do their best to convey both concern as their various internal struggles threaten to rip a fun day of off-roading apart and the abject fear when they are confronted with extraterrestrial terrors.
But of all the performances, Michael Adamthwaite steals the show as a distaff member of the Heaven's Gate cult preparing for his transubstantiation. He is mostly all snarls and indecipherable comments, but he creates an impressive figure of menace in both the found footage and his interview during a documentary segment.
The deliberation and rumination of the film's early goings fly out the window as the four men encounter a crashed alien vessel. From there, they are chased by seeming mindless attackers.
The creature effects and set pieces are a credit to director Keith Arem and his team as they pull of quite a lot with a limited budget, but because the format of the film keeps the four main characters at a distance, it is hard to care for them as the alien peril gallops ever closer. In lieu of an emotional connection, we have a series of well-staged scenes that miss a final punch as the fates of the characters are revealed.
And for all the accomplishment in the technical areas of the film, it never provides a compelling reason for Lauder to leave his bike helmet and record everything — a difficulty many found footage films encounter.
Also like many found footage films, The Phoenix Incident never quite engages the audience with the protagonists despite an interesting premise. As part of a transmedia entity with an ongoing story, there is a superb sense of world-building. But as a film dependent on interaction with the people within it, we're left with the echos of characters it desperately wants us to know; as obscured as a government cover-up.