The Phoenix Project and its Forerunner: Why a Film Should do More Than Mimic Its Predecessor

Posted: February 17, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized
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MV5BMjA3MjI0NDAxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzk2NDI3MzE@._V1__SX1394_SY676_The Phoenix Project (2015) is a little-known, independent Sci-Fi film shot on a tiny budget by debut director, Tyler Graham Pavey; and as such, it has all the trappings of a film with great potential. Small production companies and the rise of VOD (video on demand) have combined to created a market replete with opportunities for up-and-coming filmmakers, affording them a chance to do with Sci-Fi what the genre does does best: experiment with narrative, form, and style to create truly innovative films that speak to the human condition. One particularly notable example of this is Shane Carruth’s 2004 film, Primer (perhaps one of the most convoluted—in a positive way—and captivating time travel stories ever told through the medium of film), which is clearly the father of and forerunner to Pavey’s Phoenix Project. Both films take place almost exclusively in a singular setting (a garage), and both place a heavy emphasis on jargon-filled dialogue and minimal exposition. What is interesting, then, is that these two films that have so much in common are so starkly different.

The Phoenix Project begins in media res, with a team of four men assembled to work on a project referred to as Phoenix. In many ways, the first thirty minutes of the film are the most interesting, as we learn about the characters and their unified purpose. And one way The Phoenix Project succeeds is by showing more than telling. Pavey makes us sit patiently and observe in order to learn that Perry (Corey Rieger), Devin (Andrew Simpson), Ampersand (David Pesta), and Carter (Orson Ossman) are working on a project that will bring the dead back to life. One of the more fascinating—or maddening, depending on your viewpoint—aspects of The Phoenix Project is that it, like the aforementioned Primer, does not even attempt to explain the “science” behind the endeavor. Whiteboards are filled with endless equations and formulas that are most likely gibberish to those who don’t have advanced degrees in requisite fields, and the film’s sparse dialogue is interspersed and charged with highly technical language. The majority of screen time is thusly devoted to the team’s attempt to get this elaborate machine they have built to work on live subjects. They begin by conducting tests on small animals, such as insects, and then move on to mammals, mice and rabbits; and when they discover—after numerous delays and complications— that their machine actually works, the next question is to whether they should run a test using a human subject.

MV5BMTgwNjY5MDkzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTAxMTcyMQ@@._V1__SX1394_SY676_While it all sounds very interesting and promises to be thought-provoking and suspenseful, the most noticeable problem with The Phoenix Project—as is often the case when a film has this sort of symbiotic relationship with its predecessor—is that it fails to delight, captivate, entertain, and illuminate where Carruth’s Primer succeeds. Whereas the latter is able to be jargon-laden, vague, and character-driven in way that appeals to both hard-core Sci-Fi aficionados and a more general audience, the former has the same end-goals in mind but achieves none of them. The film’s attempts to generate interesting conflict among the characters falls flat, and the narrative itself is devoid of any meaningful progression. Moreover, the score of The Phoenix Project has a hokey, daytime soap opera feel that works against its otherwise somber, serious tone.

The real tragedy is that Pavey’s debut film builds toward a provocative and worthwhile theme— that humans are much more than biological organisms or highly advanced animals (the film even hints at the existence of soul or some sort of transcendence)— but it fails to deliver on a formal level. Earlier I invoked the notion of Primer as a forerunner to The Phoenix Project. In reality, this language falls short, for forerunner imagery conjures up ideas of the hairy, wild, camel-hair clad, locust-eating, John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming Messiah. The purpose of a forerunner is to point to something greater than oneself, and so the unfortunate thing about The Phoenix Project is that all it ever does is remind us of how good Primer is; it merely points back to its forerunner and fails to build on the foundation that has been laid.

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