ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Three friends – Reid (Reid Warner), Darrin (Darrin Bragg) and Ben (Ben Rovner) – travel to Nevada, so that they can infiltrate the infamous Area 51 base and uncover all of its secrets. With the help of Jelena (Jelena Nik), the daughter of a former Area 51 scientist who was killed after he went rogue, they are able to locate the classified premises. However, their curiosity gets the best of them when they find themselves in the midst of a bizarre supernatural event that awakens a mysterious, life-threatening entity of some kind.

See, this is why you don’t play with fire, kids.

Following his breakout found footage hit Paranormal Activity in 2009, many thought, Steven Spielberg of all people included, filmmaker Oren Peli was the next big thing for the horror genre since M. Night Shyamalan. Aside from slapping his name as producer on a number of other horror projects, mainly the subsequent Paranormal Activity sequels and the Insidious franchise, 2015’s Area 51 is just his second film as a director. Though shot way back in 2009, the film suffered in development hell, going through a number of rewrites and re-shoots before finally securing a release date six years later.

And after watching this slow, patience-testing bore of a film, I can definitely understand the long delay in any studio wanting to touch this film, and even now it’s barely even getting a release (aside from the on-demand platforms, only Alamo Drafthouse theaters will be playing this).

I guess I can’t criticize Peli for falling back on the tired found footage format. This was filmed back in 2009 before the low-budget style blew up into something bigger than it ever dreamed it could be. And I have been surprised before, this year even, with last month’s Unfriended. No, Peli’s problem isn’t a rehashed style, though the tricks he’s using here are just more of the same of what he did with his first film, it’s just how uneventful this film is. That’s kinda surprising coming from a man that did so much out of so little with the only good – hell, the only watchable – Paranormal Activity film.

Of course, I’m not against slow burns in horror/sci-fi films. Sticking with the found footage genre, both Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project were slow burners, building up its story, characters and relationships prior to raising the tension. Two key differences, though, distinguish those two superior films from this misfire. One, the performances were effective and natural, and the relationships established felt real, so the films are still able to hold our attention even during the quieter moments. Because of that, by the time the shit does hit the fan the tension raised is earned. Reid, Darrin and Ben, on the other hand, are juvenile caricatures who show their dedication and commitment to the cause of science and uncovering the truth our government’s by hiding from us by testing out their video equipment on naked strippers giving them lap dances.

Francis Bacon, who first applied his scientific method toward the prolongation of life by sucking jello shots off the nipples of his young, tight-bodied female interns, would be so proud.

Secondly, in The Blair Witch Project’s case (which this film is more akin to than Peli’s Paranormal Activity ’cause of the similar Area 51 documentary-like interviews leading to the big discovery), the folklore set up within the movie’s intriguing and at the time of its release was so effectively marketed, people actually believed it was real. The efforts taken to make it look like an actual documentary is what makes it a fascinating watch. Conversely, the subject of Area 51 has been beaten to death ad nauseam. Although this isn’t to say better filmmaking hands couldn’t make this work, there’s nothing mentioned in this film that hasn’t already been retold, rehashed and regurgitated on every Discovery and History Channel special, and the fifty billion other films that have used Area 51 as its setting.

I know, you could also say the same about simple haunted house stories, right? Well, that’s when we go back to the point I made about the performances and relationships.

There is something inherently intriguing about the subject matter Area 51 has to offer, one that’s been keeping every conspiracy theorist in the country occupied for decades. In the hands of a director that turned a small ghost story into a critical and box office smash, you’d think he could make it work. But the characters in this film are so paper-thin, and the long-winded conversations about their plan, which take up most of the film, feels so tedious (it only feels that way ’cause you just don’t care about any of the characters) that any sense of danger in what they’re doing is tragically MIA. To its credit, things pick up once they’ve finally entered the base, but by then it’s already wasted an hour of it’s 90-minute run time.

More importantly, you’ve wasted 90 minutes of your life.

I give Area 51 a D+ (★½).

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