Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Oren Peli
Writer: Oren Peli, Christopher Denham
Producer: Jason Blum
Stars: Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Ben Rovner, Jelena Nik
Three conspiracy theorists try breaking into the Area 51 military base to uncover evidence of extraterrestrials.
For a fair period of time, Oren Peli’s “Area 51” was something of a genre equivalent to Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried.” Variety reported in 2009 that four bidders were itching to write checks for the “Paranormal Activity” creator’s sophomore film, with Paramount Pictures emerging as one of the victors. The other victor was Peli himself, who went from a reported budget of just $11,000 for “Paranormal Activity” to nearly $5,000,000 for “Area 51.” The searing success of “Paranormal Activity” (review here) had propelled Peli to the top of the overnight wunderkind list in Hollywood, and studio suits and fervent fans alike were eager to eat up whatever he had on tap for his second act.
But nary a new peep squeaked from the project until 2011, when Christopher Denham was brought aboard to contribute to the film’s ongoing tinkering process. A test screening took place later that year (the copyright date on the final film is 2011), and multiple reshoots were apparently in the mix, yet nothing additionally noteworthy was heard until producer Jason Blum updated an interviewer in 2013 that the film was still “futzing” about in post-production.
A movie about exposing a conspiracy theory was creating a minor one of its own. What was the hushed secret behind why something filmed in 2009 couldn’t nail down a release date, or couldn’t offer concrete clues regarding the whys behind ongoing delays?
Speculation wondered if the film was a turkey. Peli was helping pump out annualized “Paranormal Activity” sequels and producing a network television series under a deal with ABC. You’re only as hot as your last project though. Maybe the fear was that a lackluster follow-up film would dump cold water on Peli and P.A.’s sought-after mystique if anyone realized that lightning was not going to strike twice.
Mostly mum remained the word on the mystery movie for several more years. Then in 2015, Blumhouse discreetly backed up a dump truck to VOD channels and out slid a slew of “whatever happened to?” titles including “Mercy” (review score), “Mockingbird” (review here), and the long-awaited “Area 51.” What did six years of reshoots, rewrites, reedits, and tested patience finally deliver?
After an apparent alien abduction during a house party, average guy Reid becomes so obsessed with UFOs and government cover-ups that he convinces two buddies to commit an imprisonable felony by helping him break into the infamous military installation at Area 51. The story is a little foggy on Reid’s exact plan once he is inside, or what he specifically aims to find, but something interesting has to be there, right?
The intrepid trio travels Nevada deserts meeting clandestine contacts and crackpot extraterrestrial enthusiasts, including a young woman named Jelena, whose Area 51-obsessed father died in a suspicious suicide. With Jelena adding the fourth corner to their quartet, Reid and the others engage their cloak and dagger tactics and head to the base. Of course, what they find inside is exactly what they hoped/feared. Maybe even more so.
A problem faced by “found footage” that isn’t based on serial killer or supernatural slashings is that three men researching and then sneaking into what looks like an average office building doesn’t lend itself well to inherent thrills. When Reid and the others are scouting the perimeter or creeping around barren sand in night vision, the nearest threat is as far away as some security vehicle headlights in the distance. Without substantial imperative danger, other than merely being arrested for trespassing, there is no foreboding feeling of dread raising arm hairs on the audience.
“Area 51” instead creates tension through contrived moments like a serendipitous snake slithering towards someone crouching and forced to lie still, or having residents predictably return home unexpectedly just minutes after the main men sneak into a house to pilfer a security badge. Other cheats, like resorting to a quick jump from whip-panning to a barking guard dog, are inserted to pump up the pace so artificially that the realistic veneer “found footage” is supposed to convey ends up compromised.
Only minutes into the movie, it is abundantly clear that “Area 51” is a product of what passed for the “found footage” formula in its production year of 2009. It would actually be just as easy to believe it was a product of 1999, when “The Blair Witch Project” (review here) wrote the modern template for the format and every subsequent entry in the subgenre simply copied it.
Probably less than 10 of the movie’s first 45 minutes directly impact the plot. As was/is old hat for “found footage” first acts, “Area 51” has a ramp-up inspiring hands held in front of chests to roll forward in circle motions. Reid and the boys pack gear, hit up a Vegas strip club, check into their Hooters hotel room, play beer pong, and rattle off banter safely evaporating from memory as unimportant almost instantly upon entering.
There are also nonessential interview asides with semi-colorful locals and various partners in crime offering snippets of assistance amounting to little in the long run. One brief encounter is with real-life UFO investigator Norio Hayawaka. His inclusion as a contact providing Reid with base-infiltrating intel is entirely redundant when a short time later, Reid meets another contact who personally guides the group to the base’s border and directly helps them get inside. Hayawaka’s shoulder-shrugging inclusion seems like little more than a pandering wink to lend some legitimacy for those who recognize him as a Coast to Coast AM personality.
Which is another fault of the film. It sandwiches in so much of the same recycled UFO-related references and fiction that the story mirrors the first-person format as being boringly outdated. Roswell, military conspiracies, black-eyed greys, beams of light sucking abductees into space; all of the usual suspects are here, and none of them have inventive spins on preexisting mythology. It’s an average idea for a story wrapped inside an average approach towards realizing it as a film.
It’s bizarre to think that over half of a decade was supposedly spent creating what amounts to a “found footage” version of one of those “Alien/UFO/E.T. Files” shows that plays on broadcast TV in the dead of night. Its style and script are so basic that it is practically inconceivable for so much time and so much cash to be caught up in something so uninteresting.
I once glibly joked in a different review about a movie being so generic that its cover art should have been a simple white background with plain black text. It’s fitting that the poster for “Area 51” is exactly that.
NOTE: There is a brief post-credits scene.
Review Score: 40