While subjects like the supernatural and other horror staples have often been the subject of found footage movies, science fiction generally crops up less frequently. I guess it’s more expensive, or maybe it’s just less effective in providing a quick and easy source of sinister camcorder atmosphere. When it does happen films like District 9 and Chronicle branch away from the horror genre, or cross into standard documentary visuals. Perhaps it’s just because getting scares from an inherently silly idea like UFO sightings just isn’t that simple, outside the likes of Fire in the Sky. Director Justin Barber seems undeterred by this however, and backed by producers such as Ridley Scott and Mark Canton he tells the story of a trio of teenagers who vanished looking for extra-terrestrials in the Arizona desert twenty years ago. Does he succeed, or is this all just a series of amnesia jokes waiting to happen?
The year was 1997. In North America Bill Clinton was sworn into office a second time and in Japan the original Pokémon series was adapted in a cartoon for the first time. Most importantly The X-Files was still going, and it was still good. Which is kind of relevant as on the 13th of March a number of strange lights were seen in the skies above Arizona state capital Phoenix, in what was recorded in real life as a mass UFO sighting. It’s here that the story begins and aspiring film maker Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) decides to try and research the event. He takes along his old friend Mark (Justin Matthews) and his new crush Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) as both the crew and the presenters in this endeavour. Several days later the only trace of them is an abandoned car and their equipment.
Two decades later Josh’s younger sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) comes back home to see her family and make her own documentary – in which she will try to find out what she can about what really happened that night. The film has some immediate strengths as these two stories from different eras are spliced together to make one whole. The younger cast are all great, with Josh being the geeky introvert and Ashley playing the outgoing TV star. Mark is the confident handsome one who can drive, so of course there are hints of a teen love triangle. While he gets less to do as a result of being introduced later in the story they’re all pretty natural, and the trio forms a likeable core to the narrative.
The variety provided by the two time periods and the different forms of camera work also helps this maintain some appeal. The production values are pretty solid, and the changing age of the interviewees in each time era really sells the idea of past and present coming together as all the old memories begin to surface. Themes of lost time and community denial are fairly well established as things unfold. The contrast between both styles of camera also prevents the low quality footage from the 1990s becoming too tedious, and it mixes well with old TV news broadcasts. Beyond the sound clarity of the home video recordings being a little too good it all feels pretty realistic. However as the story progresses there are several problems that quickly become apparent.
The back and forth changes between past and present are initially pretty engaging, but as things progress it drains away all the suspense. After so many different opinions and interviews the main story with its three protagonists lacks any kind of immediacy; their fate starts to feel like just another video in this series of clips. There’s no sense of pacing when both teen Ashley adult Sophie keep stopping to ask residents for their thoughts. UFO experts and Native American locals might offer some interesting insight – but it’s not a source of tension. The string of investigators, parents and others who scoured the landscape after the initial disappearance becomes exhausting after a while. It’s no surprised that the really juicy details are only alluded to and held off until a suitably intriguing moment.
The drama from potential ideas of ‘foul play’ being involved is brief, and the speculation and fallout between family members in the years that have passed soon dries up by the time the third act rolls around. It’s here, a whole hour into the movie, that all the usual shaky footage, flashing lights, yelling and perspiration covered faces finally arrive. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about how more effective this was done in older releases, and it doesn’t offer anything substantially new. All the usual elements are present and correct as torches to infra red camera are utilized; but all these tropes are the least interesting part of the story. The character drama should have been the focus when the climax of the film is obvious from the outset.
There are some spooky moments involving state police driving cars without license plates and a few eerie shots of ancient stone carvings out in the wilderness, but it rarely feels truly dramatic. The documentary style interviews and all the investigations are only engaging for so long. Eventually there are a few reveals but the convenient discovery of more ‘evidence’ as things come to a close raises more questions than anything. The big finale feels more like a mandatory shock ending than a harrowing thrill ride with a satisfying climax. Ironically this supposedly forgotten story will just remind you of all the other times this scenario has been played out, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t offer anything fresh of its own to gain a recommendation. The results aren’t terrible, but this is one for serious found footage junkies only.