Area 51 was directed by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity, Chernobyl Diaries), written by Peli and Christopher Denham (Old Flame, Preservation), and stars Reid Warner (Conspiracy World, House of Manson), Darrin Bragg (B Positive, After the Party), Jelena Nik (Rosa the Impostor, Villainous Victims), and Ben Rovner (Beach Bar: The Movie, Erasing Eden). It’s about a group of friends who infiltrate the infamous government facility, only to have trouble making it out with their footage – and their lives.
The Plot: Inferences as to what the feature entails will most likely be correct. Peli and Denham have a decent, if entirely rote, setting at their disposal but don’t dream up much of a story, rather a low-energy vacation documentary that eventually gets to its titular location.
As twentysomethings Reid (Warner), Darrin (Bragg), and Ben (Rovner) make their way back home after a party, Reid wanders off into the woods, only to come back with a blank expression on his face and not much to say. Area 51 doesn’t identify or even hint at what he saw, felt, or experienced during his little excursion, instead choosing to jump to three months later when the characters are preparing to find out what’s in the prolific government base. One might think that this would come back in some capacity, but it never does, and the filmmakers carry on without context.
Occasional interview footage is spliced into Area 51, but it doesn’t do much enlightening, making it a worthless narrative inclusion. The group do eventually make their way to Vegas and stays in a hotel to plan their entry and exit in between bouts of typical Vegas ventures. Some threads of interest are present, such as Reid gathering gear like bleomycin pills, heat-masking suits, and signal jammers, but it takes so long for them to meet with Jelena (Nik), who assists with their entry and tags along for the journey, that Peli’s threadbare narrative stops before it starts.
When the group gets into the base there’s something worth watching, as the movie becomes a struggle to escape, but 50 minutes of nothing doesn’t make the 35 minutes of mediocre discovery worth the lead up.
The Characters: Because the director already had trouble with character distinction but got away with it thanks to massive box office success, there was no reason for him and his co-writer to move forward; as such, they give instantly forgettable documentarians the limelight.
Reid’s interest in hidden bases with hidden agendas is never given much detail. Aside from interview footage with his sister that tells the audience that he used to be a normal, straight-A student who pivoted to being a full-time shut-in with an eye for the alien, there’s no personality on display – he’s just another nameless found footage protagonist who wants to document things. The same can be said for Darrin, but Area 51 makes a point of his willingness to travel coming from simple curiosity. Who wouldn’t want to see what’s taking place in a secret base? Again, there’s nothing else to him, but it’s something.
Ben is both the resident doubter of the plan and the horndog. His motormouth hardly ever stops, and most of his dialogue is related to the appreciation of the female body and the likelihood that none of the foursome are going to make it anywhere close to the titular facility alive. Once Jelena enters the picture, this changes, as she has her ex-government employee father’s homemade maps of the base. She wants to see the inside because of her father’s death, which came after he asked too many questions and was ruled as a suicide.
That’s about as good as it gets for characters; some have acceptable but entirely predictable motivations whereas the rest are interchangeable screen fillers.
The Thrills: Fleeting moments of excitement occur throughout the runtime before the movie makes its way to the base, but nothing that’s on display here hasn’t been done better before examples of the conspiracy subgenre.
Confirming their suspicions about another G-man brings along the only interesting sequence in the first hour, which involves the crew following the man and barely making their way into his house to collect a pass card, even though the characters themselves point out that Jelena’s father was able to sneak through the base without the use of one, making the moment inessential to the feature. It’s fine as its own setpiece, as Reid and Darrin have to navigate in the dark without waking the man and his family, but you know exactly how it’ll go.
Making their way to the base itself has its fair share of difficulties, but few of them raise Area 51’s tension levels. Noticeably, there’s a lack of direct threat that the base presents. Some guards patrol the outermost border of Groom Lake, but they don’t do much other than observe. Even the signs only indicate a fine and a six-month jail sentence; hardly a major punishment for trying to gain access to the foremost secret base. The group’s gear does come into play, with the freon suits giving them the ability to avoid thermal detection, which is a cool visual, but because of the lack of threat, it almost seems overblown.
What’s inside the base won’t come as too much of a surprise given all of the signposting, interview speculation, and the popularity of the alien myth. Peli is at least able to conjure up a few energetic sequences where the characters run throughout the base after their cover is blown, where they come into contact with typical little grey men, along with some more inexplicable visuals that are significantly less cliche. It doesn’t make the journey less disappointing, but there’s a solid sense of the unexplained after all the generic content.
The Technics: Shooting commenced not long after Paranormal Activity reached a wide release in 2009, with prolific production company Blumhouse funding the feature. Considering the relative inexperience of the director and the hit-or-miss output of the studio, Area 51 was walking a thin line.
Exponentially increasing the helmer’s funding did eventually do some good. While everything prior to the scenes within the base looks and sounds as unremarkably average as these movies get, the money spent on the titular base was used well. While it doesn’t require an inordinate amount of effort to make a series of concrete hallways occasionally interrupted with labs and high-tech equipment, the movie pulls it off reasonably well. The seemingly endless stairwells that burrow into the ground, bizarre lifeforms, and decades-old aircraft (human and otherwise) are convincing.
Despite a permissive budget and open premise, the feature is endlessly generic. Found footage presentations rarely can be told apart from one another, and this remains true here, as Area 51 has no distinction to its look, editing style, or even logical gaps. You’d think that with six years being spent on the shelf, one of the writers would’ve come up with a reason for the visual gimmick that could’ve been implemented with reshoots, but the feature falls into the same traps that so many others of its ilk did and still do.
Hardly the frenzy of weird ideas and alien antagonists it could’ve been, Area 51 isn’t much of anything. It looks the same, sounds the same, feels the same, and fails the same way that others have. It’s not awful, just sinfully subpar with less excitement than was available.
Area 51 is available on DVD and Digital platforms from Paramount.