In 2007, Oren Peli’s directorial debut “Paranormal Activity” was released to positive critical reception. Its success paved the way for the found-footage genre of horror films and the seminal “Paranormal Activity” franchise. Peli’s 2015 sophomore effort, “Area 51,” is no different, but its unlikable characters, slow-burn plot and now clichéd cinematography make it unremarkable.
Following a cast of three 20-something friends, “Area 51” documents the group’s planning and eventual trek into the real life secret government base. The trio films each other as they attend a house party in an unnamed part of the United States. After Reid mysteriously disappears, Darrin and Ben dismiss the incident, believing that he has taken off with a girl from the party. Attempting to drive home, the two are shocked when Reid appears in the middle of the road, seemingly in a trance. After a three month time-gap, the group are seen preparing to travel to Las Vegas for the first part of their journey to Area 51.
From the beginning Peli demonstrates his competence in the found-footage genre, delivering tight and relatively interesting shots from a handheld perspective. However the oversaturation of the genre combined with an overall lack of tension and thrills—save for the film’s climax—does not work in his favor. Several scenes serve only to demonstrate the trio’s fancy gear and offer no real entertainment aside from cheap laughs. For example, Reid and Darrin use a signal jammer to block Ben’s phone call from an unnamed female friend. The group later sneaks their body-mounted night vision cameras into a Las Vegas strip club.
Typically where these moments provide character development, “Area 51” instead gives very little. The characters depicted are all close friends who like to goof around and play pranks, they love partying and strippers, and they are fairly tech-savvy. None of this makes the audience care about who they are or what they are doing. Their banter, while authentic, grows tiresome, quickly becoming annoying when they argue over whether or not they should follow through with their plans.
While the majority of the film lacks any real thrills, its climax more than makes up for this. With the help of an outsider, Jelena—the daughter of a deceased former Area 51 employee, the trio is seen sneaking around the military complex. Here they find a number of chilling secrets such as an authentic alien spacecraft, as well as strange experiments involving antigravity and alien blood. The group even stumbles across a vast network of caves housing hostile aliens and discarded human belongings, including actual human remains. These events occur around the last 30 minutes, demonstrating Peli’s understanding of horror and his inability to maintain that atmosphere for the duration of the film.
After a brief spout of terror the film ends abruptly leaving audiences with many questions, the sort which often enrich the viewing experience. In this instance however they only serve to accentuate the film’s first vapid hour, leaving a sense of frustration. This is even more frustrating given Peli’s debut “Paranormal Activity,” which is an intense and claustrophobic journey with a similarly small and tight-knit cast of characters. “Area 51” proves that while Peli may have struck gold with his first foray into directing, his years of producing films dulled his skills.
“Area 51” is currently available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and other select streaming services.