Now Streaming | ‘Area 51,’ The Film You Almost Never Saw
Six years. Imagine waiting six years for anything. That’s one thousand, four hundred and sixty one days of wondering what was inside the box, or behind Door Number One.
Such is the tale of Area 51, the movie (not the place). Oren Peli, the writer/director of Paranormal Activity, directed this followup film in 2009 and the movie has only just been released this past week on Netflix, after a token theatrical run in May that earned only $7,556, mostly because nobody was told about it.
Let’s be clear: Peli’s first film made $193 million worldwide off of a $15,000 budget. His second film was shelved and retooled for six years and then slipped into the online marketplace in the middle of the proverbial night, in the apparent hope that no one would notice.
And the sad, sad truth is that after all that wait, Area 51 isn’t even all that bad. One might imagine that a film that was kept under wraps for this long would be a colossal misfire on par with The Apple or Ishtar. But instead, it’s just a boring found footage flick that would have been considered hackneyed if it had come out on time. Nowadays the found footage genre may be alive, but it’s not exactly well, and Area 51 plays like a relic that didn’t need to be discovered.
The film stars Reid Warner as a guy who meets someone at a party one day and then decides for no reason to then dedicate three months of his life to planning a raid on Area 51, where he is convinced he will find a UFO, aliens, or at least a big white room (which is actually foreshadowed like mad).
Reid convinces some friends with absolutely no personalities whatsoever to join him on this quest. He never explains to them exactly why he became obsessed with Area 51 in the first place, and he wastes 45 minutes of documentary footage on filler dialogue and stripper cams until he finally starts breaking into the joint.
You can literally skip the first 45 minutes of Area 51 and not miss a thing. It is nothing but tourist videos, parties with characters we never see again, and geeking out about spy technology that’s self-explanatory anyway. None of these people have a story arc, so you don’t need to know where they came from, because they’re not going anywhere interesting. All that matters is that they eventually sneak into Area 51 – which is astonishingly easy to do given that there are actually aliens inside (no spoilers, there wouldn’t be a movie if there wasn’t) – and then some spooky stuff happens.
To Oren Peli’s credit, some of those spooky goings on at Area 51 (the place, in the movie) are actually eerily conceived and photographed. Unfortunately these images are constantly jabbered over by actors who were apparently asked to ad lib every three seconds out of fear of silence. The repetitious questions and observations and “Check this outs” and “Look over heres” contribute absolutely nothing to the experience of watching Area 51. Any attempt whatsoever at building atmosphere is swiftly destroyed by this constant, meaningless drivel. If you met a person in real life who was as distressingly uncomfortable with silence as Area 51 is, you would avoid them at all costs.
It’s disappointing that Area 51 is bad, but perhaps the real tragedy is that a statement has been made – accidentally or intentionally – by hiding this movie from the public for over half a decade. If Area 51 had come out in 2009 it would have been immediately written off as a sophomore slump from a filmmaker who was clearly capable of better things. A misfire, perhaps, but not necessarily an indicator that Oren Peli was a one hit wonder. We could have all moved on with our lives.
But shoving Area 51 under the rug for six years – during which time Peli hasn’t directed any other movies – would actually seem to indicate the opposite. It’s hard not to look at these events, or rather the lack thereof, as a confirmation that Oren Peli really wasn’t the wunderkind that audiences hoped he would be, and that whoever had their finger on the button must have decided that keeping this information from the public would be in the best interests of the ongoing and consistently lucrative franchise that Peli’s Paranormal Activity wrought.
It’s just that kind of paranoid speculation that usually makes conspiracy movies interesting, but Area 51 was not made with that kind of relatable self-imposed delusion in mind. What made Paranormal Activity work, and indeed what made it genius, was the film’s humanity. It was a simple movie about recognizable human beings who were motivated by understandable dilemmas into situations that turned out to be horrific. Area 51 has none of those qualities. It doesn’t understand or even attempt to illustrate the sort of mindset that might make anybody actually think that breaking into a government installation was a good idea, and instead plays like a bunch of dudes decided to make an amateur sci-fi movie on a whim.
Area 51 is not worth exploring, but for those who have waited and waited and waited to finally see Oren Peli’s second film, it may be worth a click. If that describes you, just remember that it’s okay to fast forward through this, and fast forward a lot.
Images via Paramount Insurge
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.