Area 51 – where the hell do I begin? You have to respect Oren Peli for single-handedly redefining the horror landscape with a 10K budget and a haunted video tape (Paranormal Activity), an act that led everyone to assume the director would be treated as a golden God on whatever project he decided to tackle next. Unsurprisingly, Area 51 was announced – an obvious thematic followup. Found footage scares, alien conspiracies and a handful of unknowns who run around the Neveda desert? Hell, Peli was able to accomplish unspeakable bouts of terror by using an invisible monster, now he’d actually have evil creatures to play with! Blumhouse fanatics immediately started salivating based on Peli’s concept alone.
But then uncertainty set in. Years passed with no updates on the Area 51 front, Peli kept producing and writing other projects (The River), and not even Jason Blum could confirm what the hell Peli was “futzing” with for so damn long. For all intents and purposes, Area 51 looked to be more mysterious than the secret government facility it’s based on – until this May, when Blumhouse dumped the poor bastard as a politician might dispose of a dead hooker. Seriously, it was that heartbreaking to witness – but then I watched the film, and now understand why.
Without all the dressed-up science jargon that makes the “HOW” of Peli’s film mildly amusing (I’ll explain shortly), Area 51 exposes viewers to a non-stop assault of redundant subgenre generics. The story is simple – three people sneak into the famed military location, they stumble upon some government conspiracy and find themselves running for their lives. Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg and Ben Rovner (playing Reid, Darrin, and Ben) are joined by Jelena Nik (playing Jelena), a girl who can grant them safe passage into the hopeful alien mecca, but escaping becomes the real problem. There’s plenty of shaky camera sprinting, lurking alien shadows and teases at much scarier, more interesting things that never prove to exist.
So, as mentioned, the plan that Reid cooks up (the aforementioned “HOW”) does drop some pretty cool science-y knowledge on the military’s security methods. In order to skirt past thermal cameras used by “camo guys” – aka the base’s security – Reid and the others wear Freon-pumped suits that mask their body heat, in addition to popping Bleomycin pills to fool Ammonia sensors. So, that’s like three minutes out of a 90-minute film that are totally rad. A small victory, perhaps?
Incorrect. There are no small victories for Area 51, a night-vision-tinted reel of sci-fi stock footage that’s connected by a “story” that makes little to no sense. Peli and his co-writer Christopher Denham get caught on the idea of killer aliens running rampant through underground Area 51 labs, so much so that they forget to explain why the hell we should care about them. Or how they escaped. Or why the hell Reid is showing all the foreshadowed signs of abduction without anyone taking notice.
Oh, and of course by “aliens,” I mean shadows of camera-shy, gangly, grey extraterrestrials who would probably look super-dope if we ever ACTUALLY saw them. You can’t make a found footage movie without all the infuriating tactics that have been pissing genre fans off for almost over a decade now – can you? Area 51 is so dull that it acts as a Neuralizer from Men In Black, erasing the film’s existence from your mind immediately after viewing. There’s not a single repetitive aspect that we haven’t seen used before. Alien Abduction already did the whole “getting sucked into space” angle, Extraterrestrial doesn’t string along possible shots of aliens and Almost Human creates an alien worth fearing – all things that Area 51 fumbles to an embarrassing extent.
One has to wonder what took Peli so long to finish Area 51, because as it exists, it STILL feels like plenty is missing. Much like a college student who simply gives up on a paper and accepts his mediocre fate, Peli tacks an abrupt ending on the same film that caused over five years of grief and countless days of edits, re-edits, and obvious uncertainty. Even in this “finished” state, Area 51 is not a completed project. Yes, it has a beginning, middle and end, but none of it amounts to more than History Channel conspiracy footage, elongated scenes of suburban break-ins, and a white room only Eric Clapton would enjoy. Area 51 is everything you hate about found footage movies, with none of the payoff. It’s almost like getting abducted and NOT getting an anal probe, amiright?
Area 51 is everything that's wrong with not only found footage films, but also weak-minded sci-fi thrillers that think crazed talking heads and fuzzy shadows are scary enough.