United States. Directed by Tyler Graham Pavey, 2015. Starring Corey Rieger, Andrew Simpson, David Pesta, Orson Ossman. 92 minutes.
In 1816 a young woman named Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin spent a summer in Switzerland with her fiancée and two friends reading ghost stories and challenging each other to create their own tales of the macabre. Godwin spent the next two years developing her story into a novel, which she published two years later under her married name, Mary Shelley. She named that novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Her work cemented the animation (or reanimation) of dead tissue as the proper vocation of the archetypal mad scientist.
The four scientists of Tyler Pavey’s The Phoenix Project–team leader Perry Frank (Corey Rieger), biologist Devin Fischer (Andrew Simpson), engineer Ampersand “Amps” Garner (David Pesta), and Perry’s assistant/protégé Carter Watts (Orson Ossman) share a goal with Frankenstein: they want to bring things that are dead back to life. The similarities don’t end there: while Perry doesn’t seem “mad” in the sense of most mad scientists, he exhibits an obsession, an affinity for the unorthodox, and a disregard for authority which often brings him into conflict with his teammates.
He also possesses a hubris similar to Frankenstein’s, continually insisting that the Project qualifies only as pure research for its own sake with no goal of a practical application. In other words, he wants to do it simply so he can prove he can. This doesn’t sit quite well with Devin, the closest thing Perry has to a rival for alpha-dog status amongst the team, who has his own motivation for involvement.
Small and intimate, Pavey’s film plays out almost like a documentary about the Project; indeed, the team videotapes their work and occasionally comments on it, on the assumption that the footage will prove useful to those studying their breakthrough. This sets the tone and mood for the film, making the finished product less of a horror film than one might assume. That doesn’t mean that Pavey entirely eschews horrific elements; indeed, the film’s tragic final scenes are fraught with dark implications. But even then, Project is more thoughtful than scary.
Ultimately, the subject of The Phoenix Project is what drives people to take on ambitious, paradigm-shattering projects like bringing the dead back to life. White it doesn’t quite qualify as a character study, it focuses on its characters with a laser’s intensity. That puts more pressure on the cast to perform than a more style-based production might. The roles require an odd kind of chemistry, as while their relationships don’t entirely qualify as friendships (save for that between Perry and Carter) but possess an intensity not often seen between co-workers. By and large, the ensemble rises to the challenge, with Simpson and Pesta standing out somewhat as the most complex, relatable characters.
The Phoenix Project isn’t everybody’s cup of tea: its stylistic simplicity doesn’t engage the viewer on the visual level. The tone is often cold, giving one the sense that Tyler Pavey has not so much directed a film as grown one in a lab. (And on a completely personal level, the characters’ white-bread hipster-ish-ness annoyed me: seriously, who would name their son “Ampersand?”) But, ultimately, the film works well as a specimen of thought-provoking science fiction in the vein of Primer.