Oren Peli may not have directed any film outside of Paranormal Activity, but his hand has been present on many horror projects that emulate a similar approach to the genre. While found footage existed prior to the prolific horror franchise, it wasn’t until Paranormal Activity‘s efficient use of the camera that the series and the entire found footage genre catapulted to new heights. It was an effective use of subtlety in a frame that gave a renewed sense of tension and dread. Peli’s return to directing horror has been much-anticipated by horror fans, but his newest project feels like someone who has been watching other found footage films from the sidelines and didn’t want to rejuvenate the genre, but attempt to make slight incremental improvements.
Area 51 is silly by nature, but had the potential to be something crazy. Three young adults go to a party, where one of them (Reid, played by Reid Warner) suddenly becomes infatuated with the idea of breaking into and exploring Area 51. Cut to three months later and they’re actually going to go through with it, despite his friend Ethan’s (Ben Rovner) hesitations. Their other friend Darrin (Darrin Bragg) is lukewarm on the idea but he knows Reid is going to do this regardless and wants to help. In that is the set up for what is essentially 90 minutes of handheld cameras running through Nevada and a hangar.
There wind up being two cameras by the time they head into the restricted military outpost, and one camera beforehand that attaches to their shirt. I couldn’t tell if that third camera wound in the final act of the movie because the cameras actually tended to be flipped around to show that they were being held and not attached to a person. What is most interesting about Area 51 is that it doesn’t rely on a single camera to tell the whole story. Whenever characters become separated the cameras also end up separated, which allows for some interesting pacing and narrative tricks.
The cameras are also set up with thermal and night vision settings which provide some cool imagery and lend to a more realistic approach to the film’s outlandish premise. Playing with characters’ heat signatures gives further interesting visual effects, and just by having the different ways to interact with the cameras makes it at least more ambitious than Paranormal Activity was. Switching between night vision and normal settings during an early heist scene helps to not only build tension but also create something more visually engaging.
With subject matter such as this, it is obvious that Peli had one of two ways to go about handling the final act of this movie – with lots of mystery, or with lots of action. Fortunately, the mystery and the action get melded together fairly seamlessly, and by having characters who know nothing about what to expect, it is unreasonable to ask for answers about some of the mysteries they uncover. The action is reasonably well-shot and I never felt like the characters were moving the camera around too much, or being too careful with them. It seemed reasonable that they would still want to record everything while also not wanting to lose the camera because it is further evidence that they illegally entered Area 51.
But Area 51 is merely well-executed. It doesn’t offer much in the way of new thrills, with the exception of its extraterrestrial premise. It feels like Peli has been on the sidelines of horror for years, simply taking notes of all the things which have worked in previous found footage films. Camaraderie between friends winds up being a core component to the movie, with your typical documentary-style interviews with people giving further background information on the plot’s premise. Even Glenn Campbell, famous conspiracy theorist regarding Area 51, makes a delightful cameo as himself.
Area 51 ends in one of the most predictable ways possible though, especially for a found footage movie dealing with something it can’t explain. It’s unfortunate, because there are ways the movie could have gone into more interesting ideas. What happens when the world finds out about the truth of Area 51? How does the government react? Is there even a benefit to knowing the truth? These questions all immediately came to mind by the end of the film, but it’s not the story being told. Instead, it’s a tale of one kid who becomes weirdly obsessed over aliens and wants to know more. It never amounts to anything of worth, but the movie is at least compelling for a good portion of its duration.