Oren Peli should be a familiar name to most people reading this review. He’s the mastermind behind the Found Footage frightfest that is the original Paranormal Activity, in addition to the short-lived but fun ABC Found Footage horror TV show The River, and the god-awful Chernobyl Diaries.
Back in 2009, shortly after the first Paranormal Activity came out in a wide release, Oren Peli set to work on another similar type of movie, only instead of covering a haunted house and the demon-tormented couple living in it, this new movie, the generically-titled Area 51, followed a group of teenagers that, after one has an abduction experience, decide that they’re going to sneak into the top secret and heavily-guarded Area 51 installation in order to seek out their own answers, and film the entire thing. Despite being filmed six years ago, this movie was shelved for several years and is only just now, this past weekend, getting released thanks to Video-On-Demand services.
“Three young conspiracy theorists attempt to uncover the mysteries of Area 51, the government’s secret location rumored to have hosted encounters with alien beings. What they find at this hidden facility exposes unimaginable secrets.”
Unfortunately, while Area 51 may have had a chance at being somewhat effective six years ago when it was first made, the fact that there was a never-ending wave of Found Footage movies following in the wake of the original Paranormal Activity in the years since, while Area 51 sat around and was waiting to be released, really ended up hurting it in the end. This movie doesn’t do anything new, interesting, or different to set itself out from the dozens upon dozens of other identical and generic Found Footage movies, though that’s not entirely it’s fault, because if it had come out when it was supposed to, before 99% of these other ones had been made, it probably would have fared much better and not been nearly as tedious and generic as it is now, coming on the heels of all those countless other ones.
Putting aside now being generic and having a cliche-ridden story due to the lapse between filming and release, it sadly has scores of other issues not related to its time displacement that would have affected my enjoyment of the movie regardless of when it was released.
For instance, it takes forever for them to actually get to Area 51, spending half the movie simply preparing for it. I understand not showing much of the aliens, if at all, in a movie like this (which trust me, saying that you only get about a five second look at them throughout the entire movie, including during the climax, is perhaps being generous), but I figured they would have made it onto the installation far sooner than they did, and I thought much more of the movie than the last twenty minutes or so would be spent actually sneaking around and exploring the base. And don’t get me started on just how easily these three teenagers were able to sneak into this highly-guarded and top secret military base in the blink of an eye once they did finally get there. In a movie dealing with aliens, UFOs, and interstellar abductions, THIS is the most unbelievable part of the whole thing, and for good reason. It almost has to be seen to be believed when it comes to just how ridiculously stupid this section of the movie is.
After that painfully groan-inducing scene, and they actually get inside the installation (as unbelievable as it is), there is admittedly some good tension here and there as they’re wandering the offices, labs, and corridors, making their way deeper into the installation, trying not to get caught, and then of course when they come across some alien artifacts that react fairly interestingly to them (which includes some rather well-done CG visuals), and then when they run foul of the alien beings themselves and get chased around these underground tunnels (despite almost never getting so much as a glimpse of the aliens, save for a couple blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots). It never quite reaches the tension heights of even the most mild scene of supernatural going-ons in Paranormal Activity, but compared to the rest of the snoozefest this movie has to offer, these scenes were certainly a welcomed change of pace, and I wish the movie had more of this kind of stuff to offer throughout.
Found Footage can be a tricky thing in that regard. While some, like the killer Bigfoot horror flick Exists or the alien abduction movie Alien Abduction, have no problem throwing the characters into the shit early-on and let it build even more from there, I can completely understand when one such as Area 51 comes along and they save most of the craziness for the last stretch of the movie. Sometimes it works out well because that first three quarters of the movie is spent with characters we enjoy watching and the filmmakers use the slow burn to quietly build the tension without us even really realizing it until the shit hits the fan, similar to a frog being put in water and having it slowly turned up so it’s being boiled alive without noticing. However Area 51 has neither of these things. Lacking is a good slow build to anything, as when the shit hits the fan it comes solely from only the events of that scene alone and nothing throughout the movie up to that point built towards it at all. In addition, none of these characters are likeable in any way. We have one that doesn’t stop complaining throughout the entire scene, pretty much every scene (luckily he drops out for a large chunk of the movie before popping up for one last scene at the very end), and than with the other two, they are so gung-ho about sneaking onto a military base, including not only doing, but being perfectly fine and almost giddy, about breaking into a person’s house, with their family home including a young small girl, in order to steal an ID Base badge, that it makes it impossible to fully get behind these people or feel any sort of connection to them, because nothing at all that they’re doing in this movie, regardless of their reasons, is ok in any shape, way, or form.
It’s not all entirely bad though. As mentioned above, once they finally do get into Area 51 the movie raises up a couple steps for me. There’s some decent suspense to be found. Even though it’s not nearly as strong as in some of Oren Peli’s other works it’s certainly good enough, especially when compared to the rest of this movie, to hold my interest, and there’s some pretty nifty visuals during this portion of the movie as well. All in all, from the time they get inside of Area 51 till the end, the movie is almost passable, save for a side-plot when one of the characters splits off from the rest to sneak back out of the base on his own and he’s trying to avoid military personnel on his way. When compared to the running and hiding from attacking aliens that the other characters are currently dealing with, it was kind of lackluster most of the time, but other than that most of this section of the movie was halfway decent. Sadly, this section only takes up about a quarter of the overall movie, and for the characters to get to this point they have to go through one of the most ridiculously stupid scenes in Found Footage movie history. And that’s saying something, considering how many crappy Found Footage movies there are out there.
It’s hard to believe that this generic, cliche’, boring, and at times laughable movie was Oren Peli’s followup to the great Paranormal Activity (say what you will about some of the sequels and the direction of the series as a whole, but the original Paranormal Activity, as a stand-alone movie, was a genius game-changer and pretty large influence in the horror genre). Sure, some of this movie’s faults can be attributed to how long it took for it’s official release and the amount of other similar copycat movies that have over-saturated the market during that time, but certainly not all. Many of the issues with Area 51 would have been present no matter when the movie was released, and that’s the stuff that I really can’t forgive it for, especially since right before this the director released one of the best, most inventive, and genuinely suspenseful and nerve-racking horror movies of it’s time.