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“AREA 51” (Film Review)

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It’s a very curious thing to be a critic and a horror fan experiencing Oren Peli’s AREA 51 for the first time, especially given that this writer will inherently have somewhat of a different experience than most casual moviegoers. That’s not to insinuate that there is any kind of bias towards the film, but much like in taking a test, there will always be a divide between those who studied the subject and those who come in completely fresh to it. Obviously, the found footage shocker- finished in 2009 and then subject to more than five years of rewrites, reshoots and post-production work- has been one to watch for a very long time, especially considering the director’s previous effort is now a legitimate piece of horror history (and one that should be used as a free pass for a theatrical release for whatever would follow). And while there are snippets of a completely different horror film that even can be seen in stills from AREA 51’s trailer, this writer went into AREA 51 giving it the benefit of the doubt, setting the past aside as much as possible and hoping to see that the director of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY still can scare behind the director’s chair.

Now, is AREA 51 a good or even a scary movie? The short answer is no, it is not. But AREA 51 is also not the complete cinematic dog that the pre-release chatter may have implied. The film may have a paper-thin story, woefully unmotivated characters, few legitimate payoffs and an extremely anti-climactic ending, but it also has a couple of sequences of effective suspense and it’s amateurish production quality lends itself to a strangely entertaining sense of authenticity. And in all honesty, AREA 51’s strongest detriments and compliments can both be traced to the film’s found footage construct, which now appears somewhat outdated and familiar, especially when posited against the memories of Peli’s other found footage productions which certainly share multiple aesthetics and moments.

Of course, AREA 51 follows a group of people who are attempting to break into the infamous top-secret military base. While one friend (Reid Warner) finds himself drawn to the site, possibly having been the victim of abduction himself, another (Darrin Bragg) vies for the opportunity to be the first to film within Area 51 and the other (Ben Rovner) finds himself increasingly freaked out and jaded about the endeavor. They then encounter a young woman (Jelena Nik) seeking closure on her dead father, who may have been murdered for leaking secrets about the base, and soon enough find themselves in way over their head, discovering the shocking secrets behind Area 51.

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But for those looking for something closer to Jason Eisener’s V/H/S/2 segment, which put its chilling creature creations front and center, you’re in for disappointment. Peli uses the majority of AREA 51 to make the most out of what he has, which would be impressive production design, low-fi masking devices and the art of building tension, and to his credit, he does deliver on some aspects, such as the discovery of a uniquely organic UFO in the base. But there’s no logic to the world of AREA 51: for the audience to buy into AREA 51, they have to buy into a shocking amount of indiscretion and ineptitude on the part of AREA 51 employees, both on and off the base, and that the relationship between man and extraterrestrial is rather laissez faire instead of a prisoner-warden construct.

But perhaps the biggest crime of AREA 51 is how dependent its effectiveness is on found footage: all the suspense offered comes from a perpetual calm before the storm as we wait for a reveal, which is always obscured by an out-of-focus lens or the naturally dark cinematography. Likewise, we’re never given enough information outside of the most basic and unfortunately archetypal character development on our characters, and said characters are never given a journey outside the most literal definition, which is more disappointing considering the actors are truly appearing to try their hardest. Even the composition of the movie itself is aggravating: assembled and edited like a documentary and with a epilogue fashioned as a prologue, AREA 51 is never a step ahead of its viewer, and outside of a pair of creepy sequences (with one explicitly given away in the trailers), there’s little horror to offer in this horror movie.

AREA 51 is not a complete failure, and is even relatively tolerable compared to some other found footage affairs. But that doesn’t make it good by any means, with the story and scares coming second to the rough-and-tumble first person perspective. In some respects, the actual story of AREA 51 is more compelling than AREA 51 itself, and though Oren Peli does show off a knack for suspense, the same problems with character development, narrative storytelling and a proper ending that resided in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY are even more apparent here, and don’t have that film’s effective cinematic tricks to save it either.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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