NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Scott
The movie opens with footage from a little girl’s birthday party in Phoenix, AZ shot by Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts). It is his little sister, Sophie’s, sixth birthday and he walks around asking the party attendee’s to record a message to Sophie in the future. Josh’s grandfather gives cringe-worthy advice that Sophie will need to learn to obey her husband at all times, causing Josh to quickly cut away. After recording his mother’s message to Sophie, she turns the tables and takes the camera on Josh, asking him to say something nice to his sister. He is clearly awkward on camera, and obviously feels more comfortable being the one behind it. Josh begins to say something to Sophie when you hear the other party goers begin to exclaim in wonder at something they are seeing off camera.
Josh snatches the camera up and begins recording what will be known as the Phoenix Lights, a series of mysterious lights in formation over the city. Josh zooms in as best he can and is disappointed when the lights suddenly vanish. His family begins to speculate on what the lights were, with most believing that they are something to do with the military. Josh believes that they’ve just seen a UFO to the disbelief of his family. They are startled when two military jets blast by over the house, blowing over the party decorations. Josh asks his father that if those were the military jets, then what were the earlier lights.
The older footage stops and we hear a female voiceover, it is an adult Sophie (Florence Hartigan) saying that that night is the way she will always remember her brother. We find out that Josh and two other teens disappeared not long after the lights were seen and no trace of them were ever found. She is returning to Phoenix to film a documentary about her brother’s disappearance.
She is picked up at the airport by her father. We find out that Sophie and Josh’s parents divorced after Josh disappeared and their mother is now selling their childhood home. Sophie, in addition to returning to film her documentary, has come to help her mother pack up the house, which includes Josh’s room which has been untouched since his disappearance.
Sophie asks her mother if she has any of Josh’s tapes and her mother gives her a shoe box filled with all the tapes and the two begin to watch. First off is a collection of newscasts from the time after the lights were witnessed and we see that Josh had some notoriety from filming the lights and we see that both he and his father were interviewed for the local news. We also see newscasts speculating on the lights origins and finally a (real life) newscast where the then-Governor of Arizona gave a press conference where he jokingly dismissed the lights’ possibly extraterrestrial origins by having police officers bring out “their main suspect” in handcuffs. It is a man in a rubber “Alien” mask and costume and the governor laughs off any possibility of the lights being UFOs.
We see from the tapes that Josh began to film his own documentary about the lights but doesn’t have much luck getting people to talk to him. It is through his efforts to make his film that he meets Ashley, another high school student interested in journalism. We first see her as Josh awkwardly interviews her about the lights and she begins to coach him in how to conduct a proper interview.
Sophie, in the present, interviews Ashley’s parents who describe their daughter as a bright, charming girl. You get some hint that there was tension in the family as Ashley’s mother says that her father had been pushing Ashley toward a career in law, Ashley’s interest clearly lay in journalism. We see footage of Ashley producing stories for her high school news. When Sophie asks her mother about Ashley and Josh, she states that she was pretty sure Josh had a crush on Ashley and she hopes that Ashley returned his feelings so that he would’ve been able to experience love in his life.
Working with Ashley, Josh interviews two astronomers who show the two teens some meteors they had found and tell them that the lights were most likely military flares. They do not share Josh’s opinion on the lights being a UFO, which annoys him when Ashley seems to be leaning toward the two men’s belief. Josh and Ashley also interview a local Native American who is knowledgeable on the local legends of his tribe. They are taken aback when the man tells them that he did not see the lights personally the night Josh filmed them, but he has seen something similar before when he was younger.
Josh and Ashley also visit a library to research historical sightings of UFOs, which include a biblical description of “God’s Chariot” as a series of fiery rings descending from the sky and Native American petroglyphs depicting rings and strange beings. Josh thinks the picture of the spinning rings looks like the ship from the movie Contact, and he is pleased when Ashley says that Contact is one of her favorite movies. As they descend in the elevator on the way out of the library, Ashley does a spot on impersonation of Jody Foster in that movie, recreating the scene while Josh laughs.
They determine that they need to visit the area where the Native man they interviewed said he’d seen the lights previously, but neither of them has a car and they are stuck. Josh asks his friend Mark, (Justin Matthews) to drive them as he has a vehicle.
Mark comes to Josh’s house the night before they leave and as they prepare for the trip, they see on the news that the lights have reappeared. Josh recognizes the area where the lights have just been seen and the two set out to the area from the newscast.
They arrive and Josh excitedly scans the skies while Mark reminds him that they are leaving in just six hours. Josh notices a bright light shining up into the sky and he and Mark climb up to where it is. They are surprised to see a gathering of police officers gathered around a bright spotlight. Mark immediately says they should leave as Josh films them. Josh notices that the officers’ vehicles do not have license plates and that they have a telescope they are using to search the sky. Josh says that they are obviously looking for the lights, the two are spotted and they quickly run down the hill and back to their car.
The next morning they pick up Ashley and set off south of Phoenix. The tape ends as they light-heartedly set off out of Phoenix.
In the present day, Sophie interviews several of the police officers and rescue officials who looked for her brother and his friends. Most admit to being truly baffled as none of the evidence makes much sense. Mark’s vehicle was found, pulled off of the road and seemingly in working condition. The manner in which it was left seems to indicate no foul play. Traces of blood were found in the vehicle, later identified to be Mark’s but not enough to be life threatening. Sophie asks one officer to speculate on what he thinks happened to them. And he says it could’ve been anything, a falling out between Mark and Josh over Ashley, the kids stumbling across drug smugglers, etc. He says that all they found were dead ends and eventually they had to give up the search. We see a newscast with an interview with Sophie and Josh’s father where he expresses anger that the police are giving up the search. One last bit of evidence is discussed as Josh’s camera, with one last tape in it, was also found left in the vehicle.
Sophie is able to obtain this tape and watches it. It details the drive south by the teens, as Josh sleeps Ashley asks Mark how he knows Josh. Mark says that kids in their church group made fun of Josh for his red hair by calling him “Ginger”. Mark, not realizing that they were insulting him, thought it was just a cool nickname and was impressed everyone seemed to know who Josh was and determined he would be a person to get to know. As they travel it is clear that Mark and Ashley are hitting it off, much to Josh’s annoyance. The tape ends as they reach their intended search area where they find the bodies of coyotes that appear to have been burnt to death by something. The tape ends as Josh mutters angrily at the limitations of his camera when he tries to focus on the dead coyotes.
Sophie wonders at the unlikelihood that Josh would leave his camera behind and not film the rest of their trip, speculates that they may have had another camera. Since Ashley was part of her school’s journalism class she wonders if Ashley might have signed out another camera to take with them. Sophie goes to Ashley’s school and interviews the current head of the AV department asking if there would be any record of Ashley signing out a camera. The teacher tells her that with it being twenty years ago there would be no records of that and she herself was not teaching at that time and wouldn’t know.
Later, Sophie is watching an interview with the former governor who is now admitting that he lied about there being a rational explanation for the lights and he held the joke press conference to keep people from panicking. He now admits that he thinks that the lights really were a UFO. Sophie tracks down the governor’s former press secretary and catches him outside his house. She confronts him over his refusal to talk with her and wants to know why they lied, or if someone made them lie. The man refuses to speak with her and shuts the door in her face. Sophie expresses her frustration that, once again, there are nothing but dead ends and prepares to leave Phoenix. She helps her mother pack up the house and is once again driven to the airport by her father.
Sometime later, Sophie returns to Phoenix as she has received a call from the AV Teacher saying she has found something. It turns out that the teacher was organizing the school’s equipment storage room and has come across a box that had been mailed to the school sometime after the disappearances. The camera appears to have been exposed to great heat as it looks partially melted. Sophie asks if she can keep the camera and the teacher lets her take it.
Sophie and her camera man are examining the camera and find that there is another tape contained within. They remove the new tape and prepare to watch it. Sophie hits play.
We then cut to her sitting stunned outside her house clearly blown away by what she has just seen. After watching the footage, she has contacted an Air Force official and sent him a copy of the video. She has arranged an interview with the officer, but when she arrives at the base, he asks to speak with her. Her cameraman films her from their car while Sophie goes to speak with the officer. He tells her that he cannot grant her the interview he promised. When she asks why, he leans in to talk to her, but a plane passing overhead drowns out what he says to her. When she gets back in the car, her cameraman asks what the officer said. She says that he told her to never let the footage get out. As they drive away, the cameraman asks Sophie what she is going to do, she replies, “What do you think Josh would do?”
We then see the new tape. As Josh, Ashley and Mark set off into the rocky desert. As they walk through rock canyons they find petroglyphs depicting the rings. They finally reach the top of a ridge and they sit to rest and Mark reveals that they have a few beers that Ashley was able to get someone to buy for them at a gas station. As they sit, Ashley suggests they play truth or dare. Mark chooses dare, but she dares him to tell the truth. Josh, clearly annoyed at the flirtation between Ashley and Mark, asks Mark what is going on with Mark and another girl at school. Ashley is clearly dismayed and angry that Mark apparently has a girlfriend and asks why he didn’t bring her with them. Mark explains he didn’t want to make it awkward by turning the trip into a “double date.” But as the moment gets tenser, Mark sees a light off in the distance. They film a craft as it clearly flies in the distance. Josh and the others are ecstatic at their success in capturing it on video.
Josh makes them wait to see if the light returns, but eventually they convince him that they need to get back to the vehicle as Mark needs to get back home and Ashley need to get back before her curfew. She has not told her parents where she has gone.
They set off in the dark, but it becomes clear that Mark cannot find their way back as he has promised. They walk further and further the wrong way, coming across more petroglyphs of strange hand prints. Eventually Ashley gets Mark to admit that he doesn’t know where they are and demands to see their compass. Mark takes off up a hill to try and spot the car from above and Ashley calls Josh over to see that the compass is spinning randomly around and is useless in finding their way.
They begin to hear a strange sound and the picture on the camera begins to glitch. Soon they are blinded by a bright light directly above them and a deafening sound. The light disappears and Josh and Ashley are freaked out. Mark returns, clearly shaken asking if they saw “it”. When he realizes they hadn’t seen anything, he will only say that he saw the car and rushes off towards it despite Josh asking him what he saw.
They find the car and quickly load in and take off back towards home. Josh continues to ask Mark what he saw, but Ashley becomes concerned as Mark chugs water and is clearly unwell. Mark insists he is ok but then they are distracted by a light appearing behind them. The teens argue over whether or not it is a car as the light gets closer and closer, finally overtaking them with a bright flash. The car dies, all the electronics failing. Josh and Mark push it to the side of the road, where it will eventually be found by the police.
They decide to walk down the highway towards the gas station to get help. Josh and Ashley become more and more concerned as Mark is clearly ill, his nose has started bleeding heavily, accounting for the traces of his blood found in the car. Mark still insists he is fine and they begin to walk down the dark highway.
Mark lags further and further behind, and then suddenly insists he can hear something in the desert. He takes off of the road into the desert and as Josh and Ashley chase after him he shouts that he can hear is brother. Suddenly the camera glitches and the sky lights up and rocks and other debris begin to fly up off of the ground around Ashley and Josh who take shelter. There is one last flash and the rocks begin to fall back, pelting them both. Mark has disappeared and the two search frantically for him.
Josh finally convinces Ashley that they need to continue on to get help and they will come back to find Mark. As they climb a hill they see a light off in the distance and Josh realizes that it is a house where they can presumably find help. As they wearily head towards the house, Josh see that Ashley’s nose has started to bleed like Mark’s had. They continue towards the house, Ashley tiredly runs her hands through her hair and is horrified when she comes away with strands of her hair. She panics as she realizes she is losing her hair and Josh tries to comfort her.
Soon, Ashley is showing the same delirium as Mark had, finally running ahead of Josh claiming she can hear her father. The light returns and Josh tries to stop Ashley from running towards it as the camera glitches and lightning strikes around them. Things again begin to get sucked up into the air as the camera just makes out the sight of rings rotating above them. Then, in another flash of light, Ashley vanishes leaving Josh alone.
He runs away and finally reaches the house, which appears to be deserted as he frantically searches through it for help. He hides in the bathroom and panics when he sees his reflection and notices that his nose has started to bleed. Light begins to shine in through the windows and the house’s electrical outlets short out and burst into flame. Loose items and the water in the sink begin to fly up as the force of the ship begin to work on the house. Finally the roof is ripped away and the camera falls to the ground as it records Josh being sucked up into the ship.
The camera has been sucked up as well, but the view spins crazily as the camera fall hundreds of feet towards the ground before hitting, where it will presumably be found and mailed back to the school.
We then see some text that states that the Phoenix Lights have never been explained and that Josh, Ashley and Mark were never found.