Movies that sit on the shelf for years generally don’t age like fine wine. That’s certainly the case with Oren Peli‘s follow-up to his smash hit Paranormal Activity, which rejuvenated the found-footage horror genre. Finally receiving a belated theatrical release exclusively at Alamo Drafthouse cinemas (and VOD, naturally) six years after it was completed, Area 51 turns out not to have been worth the wait.
The filmmaker has certainly kept busy in the interim, with extensive writing and producing credits, including the Paranormal Activity sequels, the Insidious films, Chernobyl Diaries and the short-lived TV series The River among his credits. But it’s nonetheless a disappointment that this once promising project turns out to be such a dud.
There’s a good reason why this found-footage horror film has sat on the shelf for six years
Again shot in the found-footage style — although there’s no discernible reason, as with so many films of this type, that the proceedings would constantly be recorded — the film concerns three friends who decide to break into the titular government facility that conspiracy theorists have long identified as the government’s secret base for extraterrestrial research.
The leader of the group is the UFO-obsessed Reid (Reid Warner) who convinces his buddies Darrin (Darrin Bragg) and Ben (Ben Rovner) to accompany him on his mission. Roughly two-thirds of the film’s running time is consumed with their preparations for the raid, which involves such high-tech methods of avoiding detection as Freon-infused body suits, ammonia pills and night-vision goggles. To test out the latter, they naturally stop at a Las Vegas Hooters casino, indulging in some lap dances that provide the film its necessary quotient of nudity.
Helping them in their plans is Jelena (Jelena Nik), the daughter of a former Area 51 employee. In order to gain access to the facility, they must break into the home of a janitor working there to steal his key cards, depicted in an elaborate, time-wasting sequence that is once again inexplicably recorded, presumably for posterity.
Once they do manage to get in, evading the patrolling “camo“-suited guards, things inevitably start going bump in the night, with the group stumbling onto a “twisted playroom” containing toys and dolls and encountering various spectral figures that somehow manage to avoid being clearly seen by the cameras. By the time one of the characters lapses into a mysterious, trance-like state and others are miraculously sucked up into the sky, pretty much every cliche of the genre has been touched upon.
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None of this would matter if the proceedings were remotely scary or suspenseful, but Peli, working from a script co-written by actor Christopher Denham, displays little of the imagination or stylistic flair of his previous effort. Tedious, visually unsatisfying, poorly acted and narratively disjointed, Area 51 is a textbook example of directorial sophomore slump.
Production: Blumhouse Productions, Incentive Filmed Entertainment, Room 101, Solana Films
Cast: Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Ben Rovner, Jelena Nik
Director/director of photography: Oren Peli
Screenwriters: Oren Peli, Christopher Denham
Producer: Jason Blum
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Amir Zbeda, Matthew Rowland, Oren Peli, Steven Schneider
Editors: Blake Maniquis, Jake York
Production designer: Patrick Sullivan
Costume designer: Amy Brownson
Casting: Valerie McCaffrey
Rated R, 91 minutes