'The Phoenix Incident': A fresh, convincing docu-thriller
4.0Overall Score

On March 13, 1997 a group of lights appeared in the sky over Phoenix, Arizona. This now-famous UFO sighting became known as the Phoenix Lights, and is one of the most well-known North American events in the UFO community. The most compelling stories are based in reality, and with the sci-fi genre especially, relatable themes are essential. Keith Arem’s 2016 sci-fi thriller “The Phoenix Incident” offers a fascinating portrayal of the 1997 sighting. With taut acting, convincing authenticity, and stellar writing, “The Phoenix Incident” is destined for greatness as an indie sci-fi cult classic.

“The Phoenix Incident” begins by explaining that it’s “based on actual events.” There’s a montage of military video claiming that in 1997 the United States Military started fighting in secret with forces from an unidentified origin. The focus then shifts to present day with a mix of interviews and found footage. Experts including Lt. Scott Jordan (Scot Ruggles) and an anonymous US Air Force official offer testimony on the events of March 13, 1997.

Found footage clips intersperse present day interview segments. A group of friends, Ryan Stone (Troy Baker), Glenn Lauder (Yuri Lowenthal), Mitch Adams (Travis Willingham), and Jacob Reynolds (Liam O’Brien) venture into the Arizona desert on their four wheelers. With their video cameras in tow, they record their excursion which doesn’t exactly proceed as planned. There’s car trouble, a mysteriously crazy man, and an odd sighting in the evening sky.

While both interviews and found footage are acted, there’s an authentic vibe emitted which lulls viewers into the sense of watching a documentary. The found footage genre is by no means new, with its foray into popularity arriving with the debut of 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project.” However, while found footage flicks continue to populate theaters, convincing genre entries are something of a rarity. Like “The Blair Witch Project,” and “The Upper Footage,” “The Phoenix Incident” excels at offering seemingly real video clips.

A combination of excellent acting and writing foster the illusion of a documentary in this docu-thriller. Contributing substantially is the fact that the seasoned cast is largely unknown in appearance. Like writer-director Keith Arem, most of the cast members are experienced mainly in the gaming industry. Though their faces might not be known, their voices are recognizable from projects like The Last of Us, Prince of Persia, and The Order: 1886. By featuring veteran actors with well-known voices and less recognizable appearances, the notion of watching a real documentary is thus solidified.

Further bolstering the reality of the film is the taut script. Dialogue especially between Stone, Lauder, Adams, and Reynolds feels persuasively like banter between friends. There’s a credible nature about the entire project, testament to Arem’s prowess as a director and writer. The effects, courtesy of George Loucas (“Game of Thrones,” “Live Free or Die Hard,”) are visually appealing and radiate realism. Especially when portraying the unknown and, in multiple meanings of the word, alien, strong VFX are essential. Loucas does not disappoint. John Paesano’s score is understated, but one of the more enjoyable aspects of “The Phoenix Incident,” rounding out the documentary vibe.

The sci-fi genre has presented some of cinema’s greatest films, such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” While each classic is unique in its own right, the unifying theme is that these renowned flicks are grounded in realism. It’s this feeling of authenticity that makes “The Phoenix Incident” such an enjoyable and fresh entry in the sci-fi genre. From the authoritative documentary ambiance, to the found footage-thriller presentation, “The Phoenix Incident” is one of the most original sci-fi indie films to date.