A Sci-Fi Honey New Release Review

Area 51 (2015)

Let’s rewind all the way back to 2009: following a groundbreaking viral marketing campaign, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity hit theaters in October of that year, going on to become a box office juggernaut and pop culture phenomenon. Six years and as many Paranormal movies later (the sixth is slated to be released later this year), Peli is still attached to the series a producer. His follow-up project as a director, however, remained a mystery – even though he had been working on a film since the fall of 2009, when the original Paranormal Activity made him a buzzworthy name in the horror community. Thanks to Jason Blum, that film has finally seen the light of day: Peli’s sophomore directorial effort, the found footage sci-fi/horror Area 51, is now available on VOD platforms around the world. The mystery has been solved, but was it worth the wait?

For ardent fans of Peli’s work in the first Paranormal Activity movie, Area 51 may be a welcome addition to the modern found footage horror movement that he kicked off half a decade ago. True to form, Peli’s second feature has much in common with his first: improvisational actors play characters who share their real names, seeking video-documented proof of what lurks in the shadows of the unknown. These characters are Reid, Ben, and Darrin: three bromancing BFFs who embark on a clandestine operation to sneak into the remote Area 51 Air Force base and capture on video whatever secrets the government is protecting there. Warning signs alert civilians about the dangers of breaking into a well-fortified military compound, but of course these signs are not heeded – give a dude-bro a video camera, and he’ll find some way to do the stupidest possible things with it.

This sign says GTFO, dudes.
There are many inherent problems with the found footage storytelling device, but focusing on whiny, boneheaded and generally unlikeable characters is a trope that seems to appear more often in this particular subgenre than any other kind of horror movie. Unfortunately, the trio at the center of Area 51 are exactly the kind of guys I’d probably take great care to avoid in real life. We’re informed at the beginning of the film that all three characters have gone missing, and we learn about them through interviews with their family and friends – including the fact that Reid suddenly became interested in UFOs and extraterrestrial lore after a mysterious incident at a party. This mock-doc format is sufficient to learn about the three prior to their Area 51 shenanigans, but the film spends nearly an hour on additional exposition before it gets to that titular place. In the meantime, we are treated to long car trips laced with homosocial frat-boy banter, a game of beer pong, some bad karaoke, and a trip to Hooters. To test out their video cameras, the guys sneak them into a private lap dance room at a Las Vegas strip club. You know, for science.

Luckily they didn’t use the thermal camera in there.
Other shortcomings in Area 51 have to do with lack of attention to plot details and technical inconsistencies, which is surprising considering the amount of time the film devotes to convincing backstory on the facility as well as the tools and equipment necessary to evade detection on the premises. One example is when Reid steals a security clearance badge from the home of a high-ranking Area 51 employee, but doesn’t use it until long after the employee’s access would’ve been flagged or denied altogether if his credentials went missing. The film also depicts a number of scenes through the green-hued lens of a nightvision camera, even though the characters on screen can clearly see where they’re going and what they’re doing in supposed pitch blackness. I’m perfectly willing to accept the peculiar things they find when they arrive on base, but I cannot suspend my disbelief for lapses in basic logic.

Things improve considerably in the third act, when the group hooks up with the daughter of a former Area 51 employee and infiltrates the subterranean hub of the base’s covert operations. It is here that the film is finally able to generate a modicum of suspense and pay homage to the things conspiracy theorists believe are housed at the real Area 51 in secret. Peli even manages to conjure some unsettling images – particularly in the last ten minutes of the film – that are more visually compelling than anything he was able to achieve in Paranormal Activity. Unfortunately, the final payoff isn’t strong enough to make everything that comes before it worthwhile.

This is what a movie looks like when it sits on a shelf past its expiration date.
Perhaps if Area 51 had been released closer to its inception in 2009, the film would’ve garnered more positive attention and cemented Peli’s status as a found footage auteur. In the years following Paranormal Activity, however, the number of found footage films has more than doubled – and avid horror fans have seen dozens of movies that improve upon the ideas and techniques that Peli championed in his debut film. I’d be more interested in a straightforward feature about the events that supposedly took place at Area 51 in the 1950s than watch a few modern-day himbos with a camcorder commit breaking and entering. Modern audiences have seen this cliché done to death in the last five years, and we’re ready for a more inventive take on the found footage fad.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: One douchey dude-bro with a camera out of five.

Area 51 is available... if you look for it. We're not telling you where.

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