Oren Peli redefined the found footage genre with his breakout directorial debut film Paranormal Activity. I remember when the movie came out, seeing it in a midnight showing in Orlando, Florida, and falling in love with the film. Though the franchise has since had its ups and downs, that original film was extremely successful in creating a foreboding sense of dread on a minimal budget and with minimal special effects. It was a film that stayed with you, and left you creeped out for the night.
Since then, director/writer/producer Oren Peli has produced a number of projects (Insidious, The Bay, and more great horror), but his follow up directorial effort, Area 51, has been mired in rewrites and reshoots for a number of years. Finally, after all this time (we first chatted about this movie in 2009), Area 51 is here, sticking with the found footage concept and telling the story of a group of young people who break into the titular government base where (as expected) things go horribly wrong.
The found footage genre is still furtile ground for horror, and there’s still room for good movies (such as the recent release As Above, So Below), despite how many horror films have adopted the format. So when one of the creators who’s done a film that’s defining for the genre does another film, it’s definitely reason to be interested. However, Area 51 was released with little to no fanfare – a limited release only in Alamo Drafthouse locations throughout the US, then an On Demand release. Not living near a Drafthouse, the latter is how I saw Area 51.
And I’m sad to report that it’s pretty much an uninteresting film. The core concept of the film, that three early 20-something guys who have no identified background in espionage, can come up with a way to break into Area 51 that no one has attempted before, is hard to swallow. I’d rather they failed in their attempts and been captured and brought to the base. No spoilers here — this is in the trailer.
Without delving too much into spoiler territory, we’re supposed to believe this hard to swallow concept, and the success they have in achieving their goals (including stealing from a GOVERNMENT AGENT’S bedroom while he’s sleeping in it) just had me rolling my eyes. There’s also an unnecessary trip to a strip club that I imagine is supposed to give us insight into these guys, but really just makes them seem kind of like sleazebags.
After an all-too-long buildup to making it to the base, the film does pick up quite a bit, while the group maneuvers the base and uncovers its secrets – secrets that, unfortunately, are never satisfactorily explained or fleshed out, before the film comes crumbling down in an ending that’s mired with poor special effects and predictability. Where was the imagination that led to some of Paranormal Activity’s most creative moments, without the need to see everything? Area 51 feels like the mockbuster of a more established, larger release. It’s got its charms, and it’s not all bad, but it’s overall rather mediocre, not terribly exciting save for the aforementioned trek through Area 51 itself, and left with an unfulfilling ending (even for a found footage film). I can see why the release wasn’t touted as the second coming of the man who changed the genre – rather, I see Area 51 as a film that fades into obscurity over time. Where Peli succeeds as a producer, my only hope that if there’s a third directorial effort from him, it can capture some of the enthusiasm and creativity of his original.
Overall Recommendation: Skip it
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