MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Area 51’ Should Remain Off Limits

Film: Area 51
Starring: Ben Rovner, Jelena Nik
Directed by: Oren Peli

The premise is good enough: Following a strange encounter after a night of drinking with his two best friends, a young man convinces the same friends to join him on a quest to see what secrets lie on the base of the ever-mysterious Area 51. With the creator of Paranormal Activity at the helm one might expect an evolutionary piece of found footage horror that could possibly push the well-tread sub-genre into new territory, but unfortunately that is not the case. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

For whatever Oren Peli did to bring found footage back into the international spotlight with his blockbuster haunted house franchise he does the reverse with Area 51, and it’s clear almost from the very beginning of the film. Viewers are first introduced to the three friends at the center of the story in the middle of a late night spent drinking too much and thinking too little. The main character, Ethan (Ben Rovner), also happens to be a bit of a nerd, so he obviously has a few cool camera tricks that helps to explain how these same characters will later sneak around US government security. It’s all empty debauchery, complete with the crew sneaking a camera into a strip club, and it ends with the gang becoming separated at a house party while Ethan wanders off into the surrounding woods by himself, seemingly too drunk to know where he is going.

We next see the friends three months after the opening events, and they are now packing to embark on a trip to Area 51. So far, the story flows fine and there is a lot of potential for madness in the future. It’s once the crew hits the road and begins their journey that the film begins to lose steam. Peli tries to build our knowledge and interest in the base by having the team speak with locals and tourists with a deep affection for otherworldly beings, but it largely plays like amateur documentary work that lacks both focus and anything of interest to share. If you have ever read or seen anything else about Area 51 you have heard the best material from these sequences at least once before, and it’s likely been delivered in a far more convincing manner. The gang also adds a female to the mix around this point, largely for the purpose of adding the possibility for romance or dramatic tension where there would otherwise be three guys doing something stupid.

Once the mission to enter Area 51 begins, the film find its pulse, but only momentarily. Like countless found footage films before it, not to mention the hundreds released between when production began in 2009 and now, Area 51 falls victim to having too much shaky cam, too little narrative amidst its visually distorted offerings, and very little in the form of an actual payoff. There is a twist of course, even two if you want to be gracious, but they only appear after no less than ten minutes of running and screaming in dark rooms or corridors, all from relatively good looking young people who are completely disregarding the fact they’re also holding cameras.

Please understand: I realize that if I were to find myself in a scenario where I suddenly had to run for my life while I was filming something that I would like throw all concern for my video work to the wind, but in terms of delivering a compelling and thrilling narrative in 2015 that particular approach to cinematic storytelling no longer offers satisfactory results, or at least not in this instance. A single steady shot, even from a government security camera (who I presume pieced the footage together), would add untold layers of terror to the story. One would think Peli, a man who has literally made millions off doing nothing more than putting a camera on a tripod, would know to use this approach in his story.

The acting, for what it’s worth, is not entirely terrible. The characters themselves are largely forgettable, but the performances of Ben Rovner and Jelena Nik, in particular, are quite impressive. Both could have great careers in more coherent films, and I definitely want to see each do more in the world of horror.

It doesn’t seem hard to conceive a terrifying and perhaps even jaw-dropping story about a group of passionate, perhaps a bit too curious young people who decide to sneak into a military base for the sole purpose of uncovering one of the most highly-guarded secrets in US history, but Area 51 proves otherwise. From start to finish this film feels disposable, and though its final moments offer a few fleeting seconds of brilliance it all comes far too late to save the film from being a purchase you’d rather forget. I’m sure Oren Peli will bounce back, as will found footage (hopefully), but there is no saving this title.


Review written by: James Shotwell

James Shotwell
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