Inspiration and innovation never seem to quit when it comes to the worlds of science and engineering, whether it’s people figuring out the next great military weapon or those who want to fry the perfect egg. For the four young lads in Tyler Graham Pavey’s feature debut, The Phoenix Project, all efforts are being put into reanimating dead tissue. Because that never went wrong for anyone ever, right?
The project is being guided by Perry (Corey Rieger), the man with the plan and the grants to keep their research going. Then there’s Devin (Andrew Simpson), whose expertise is on more of a biological level. Ampersand (David Pesta) is there for the technical side, as he knows all about electricity and wiring. Then there’s Carter (Orson Ossman), Perry’s former student who just seems to be there for positive support and cooking dinner.
The Phoenix Project is set almost entirely within the house where the foursome are conducting their experiments, and it seems like much of the film’s minimal budget went into filling the main room with electrical equipment. As such, this is not a movie filled with car chases, or one with a lengthy post-production process adding in loads of CGI. What you see is what you get here, and if you’re willing to relax your expectations a little, The Phoenix Project is a pretty solid little tale about how dangerous the drive to succeed can be.
The small-scale approach to tackling an age-old scientific conundrum makes The Phoenix Project instantly comparable to the time travel madness of Shane Carruth’s Primer. Though it’s definitely worth mentioning that Pavey, who also wrote the script, doesn’t go too far with the tech jargon (almost to a fault) and isn’t interested in confusing viewers with loops and paradoxes. It should also be noted that this also isn’t a movie about zombies or ghosts. This story is about putting in an effort and expecting something real to show for it.
But when that effort is involved in trying to raise animals from the dead 24/7, it’s expected for tensions to rise and emotions to fray. The actors all do a decent job of making it clear to the audience where their values are, and how invested they are in this project. (It’s safe to say that some want it to succeed much more than others.) Because the narrative is laid out in a simplistic A-B-C fashion, it would be a disservice to talk about it any further.
For his first film, Pavey completely won me over as a director, although the story itself is pretty slight, all things considered. He uses the camera in a way that, without doing anything flashy, takes viewers into the frustration that the guys are feeling. Whether its panning from one frowny-face to another, or letting it hang on a character’s reaction a second longer than normal, Pavey does a fine job of visually expressing what isn’t so visual a story, and without making every other scene a confrontation. (At least early on.)
In the end, The Phoenix Project perhaps feels more like an assured filmmaker’s calling card rather than a fully formed feature in its own right. That said, there are movies made every year for $100 million or more that are complete failures in every way, so in this case, shooting small and nailing the details was the best way to go. I’ll be following Pavey’s career from now on, hoping he sticks to thought-provoking science fiction, even if he’s just resurrecting old stories in a new light.