Area 51 review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Director Oren Peli may have sparked the second wave of the found-footage format with Paranormal Activity, but he’s late to the party with Area 51. Following his horror debut was a slew of similar horror pictures centered around aliens. Some were rather clever (Absence) while others were just bland (Extraterrestrial). In comparison, Area 51 just doesn’t stand out all that well from this crowd. Considering the film was shelved for years after rewrites and reshoots, it doesn’t speak that highly of Oren’s direction which seems to capitalize on being the first in line for fresh ideas. If the found-footage format had taken off without Paranormal Activity, would Paranormal Activity have been as big a hit as it was? Area 51 suggests not.
For this investigative horror picture - camera firmly in hand and recording at all times - the movie drowns itself in about an hour of setup. We’re given backstories about Area 51, how our crew will get in there, who has information on the site, what exactly is inside, etc. Was all this necessary? Do we really need such a lengthy bit of exposition to build up to what will ultimately just be another house of horrors? Sorry, a government base of horrors. Maybe the original script was conceived before the TV show Ancient Aliens became such a strange hit. During this hour - when our leads are not boring us with loads of useless information - our characters are never given much reason to care about them. I guess the college dude-bros could relate to the three boys using their secret cameras to record inside a strip club.
If you can stay awake through all this, there’s actually some worthy scares once the group make it inside the base. The alien artifacts they discover, though obviously computer graphics, have a strange and mysterious quality to them. The alien spaceship has some cool effects with its organic texture and translucent interior. Even the secret underground cave where the aliens are housed is deliciously creepy with sleeping pods of grey ready to erupt from the darkness. There’s a chase through the base with security and if you’ve seen any of these alien found-footage movies you can guess how this will all end.
For establishing so much security for the supposedly most well-guarded secret, this gang sure is able to sneak in with ease. They steal a keycard in an employee’s house without anybody noticing them. They crawl through a field to the base where nobody notices them. They dart around the maze of a cubicle farm with nobody noticing them. Budget cuts on security, perhaps? The CIA also do a rather poor job of containing these aliens. Considering a rampage ensues just because the kids went down to the basement and somehow woke up an alien, our leads become all the more tertiary. They are not actual characters - just vessels for spooky frights at the 51st area site. Which means all the time they spend chatting in the car is a pointless attempt to show that they’re human. Yeah, this and every other found-footage movie.
It’s clear from this presentation that Oren Peli doesn’t have much to offer in his bag of tricks. Six years of producing endless Paranormal Activity sequels and clones has done nothing to stimulate his imagination or reinvigorate the genre. His return to direction is a dud with bland characters, a dull plot and terror that just wasn’t enough to warrant the wait. One compliment I’ll give him is that there were hardly any moments where nothing happens before a jump scare occurs. The camera is always moving and the plot is always moving. We’ve moved up to being bored with nothing to bored with something.