Area 51 is a perfect example of the sophomore slump. After Oren Peli’s debut feature Paranormal Activity demonstrated the economic potential of the found footage subgenre, he quickly went to work on a follow-up about aliens and the famous obsession with U.S. Air Force Base Area 51. Although it started shooting in 2009, the film wasn’t released until earlier this year and I can see why. While Paranormal Activity was patient and terrifying, Area 51 lacks any genuine scares. It’s a slow-burn horror film with no payoff and a poor validation of the genre’s central aesthetics. Simply put, there’s no reason Area 51 needs to be a found footage film.
The plot follows three dude-bros (young men obsessed with girls, partying, and maintaining their heteronormative masculinity), Reid (Reid Warner), Darren (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner), as they head out for Nevada in order to break into and film the elusive Area 51. This isn’t threadbare found footage storytelling. Instead of taking a cue from The Blair Witch Project and starting the film in media res, Peli goes to painstaking lengths to explain every step in these men’s journey to Area 51.
We follow the three friends partying it up in L.A. and witness Reid disappear and inexplicably reappear later in the night in front of Ben’s car as they’re driving down the highway. Apparently that night Reid had some sort of extraterrestrial encounter, which kickstarts his fervent desire to break into Area 51. Much of the film is then dedicated to following Reid, Darren, and the hesitant Ben as they plan their trip to Nevada, acquire surveillance equipment, swallow pills in order to avoid ammonia sensors, test out a freon jumpsuit to avoid heat vision, and look over hand-drawn maps with a fellow Area 51 enthusiast, Jelena (Jelena Nik), who comes along for the ride.
The preparatory section of the film, which constitutes the majority of the film’s running time, fails the central test of any found footage film: why would anyone be filming this? Unfortunately, Peli believes the improvised arguments and explanatory conversations are essential to his film, so we have to sit through repeated moments of Ben clumsily arguing with Reid about how crazy his plan to break into Area 51 is. If found footage’s strength is that it eliminates the distance between the viewer and the victim in a horror film, its weakness is its improvised nature. Watching dude-bros arguing about how crazy one of them is acting—”You’re crazy, man! This is fuckin insane!”—and gushing over cool gadgets—”So cool, man!”—is tedious.
In fact, Area 51’s entire focus on dude-bros is baffling, aside from it being a staple of the genre. Why dude-bros would be obsessed with Area 51 and have access to all this technical knowledge is never justified. Beyond that, it doesn’t even seem characteristic of these types of individuals that they’d be filming everything they’re doing, much less on a traditional prosumer camera. An entire film consisting of Vine videos, Instagram posts, and Snapchats would possibly be justified (I think I might be onto something…), but the footage, as Area 51 presents it, has no consistency with the characters filming it. In the end, we have to chock up the dude-bro focus to film marketing ploys, as the characters in the film most closely resemble the types of men who seek out found footage horror movies. Unfortunately, this playing to the audience inserts some leftfield sexism into the film, filling it with empty nudity and turning any women into mere eye candy. For example, the characters test out their new surveillance cameras by going to a strip club and secretly filming a lap dance, because every horror film apparently needs some bare breasts.
Area 51 only becomes interesting once the characters sneak into the eponymous base (spoiler alert?), but by then, the film’s tension has dissipated and the viewer’s interest has stagnated. Peli’s attempts to scare the viewer with dissection areas, underground caves filled with children’s clothing, and mysterious alien symbols are admirable, as they are evocative images, but it’s too little too late. This is compounded by the fact that the top secret air force base is clearly filmed in some abandoned sound stages and warehouses, and doesn’t resemble a secret government facility hiding aliens in the least. In the end, the film fails to register even a single scare.
With Paranormal Activity, Peli directed one of the true standouts of the modern horror genre, and one of the best found footage films ever made. With Area 51, he’s sadly also made one of the worst.
3 out of 10
Area 51 (2015, USA)
Written and directed by Oren Peli; starring Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Jelena Nik, Ben Rovner, Sandra Staggs, Roy Abrahamsohn.