Friday, May 29, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Area 51 (2015)

Oren Peli -- director of Paranormal Activity (2009) -- returns to the found-footage format with the new horror film, Area 51 (2015). 

I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of Paranormal Activity because of the less-than-stylish, downright unsubtle staging of some key scenes there, not to mention the use of CGI front-and-center in the final, important, shots. 

But the good news is that Peli has dramatically improved in terms of how he utilizes visuals. Area 51 -- while not a high-water mark in the found footage format -- is nonetheless a solid horror film of this type that may even leave you wanting more.

In particular, the film’s third act explores an underground installation in Nevada -- the base below Area 51, as it were -- and leads the viewer through a series of imaginative and disturbing discoveries.  

This aspect of the film is riveting.  Some of the last act revelations are really fascinating, and seem to set up a larger mythology or world. I know I wouldn’t mind re-visiting it in a follow-up film.

Also, Area 51 features an innovative and original idea or central metaphor in regards to those beings who are incarcerated at Area 51.  The film likens the aliens imprisoned there to terrorists trapped in Guantanamo Bay. 

They have been held for a long tong time, and quite possibly been mistreated…but those facts don’t mean you want them released, either.

Area 51 takes a while to really get going, and features some early scenes that don’t build character or contribute to the overall narrative. You may also walk away from a screening with questions about security at Area 51…which seems remarkably lax given the prisoners there.

But still -- where it counts -- Area 51 is successful.  The film features some good jump scares, and there are some downright creepy scenes in the last act to challenge your sense of reality.

“Something is pulling me towards the base.”

A young man, Reid (Reid Warner) believes he was abducted by aliens while at a party with his friends, and three months later becomes obsessed with the idea to breaking into Area 51: the secret military base that UFO-logists believe houses a flying saucer, and possibly its extra-terrestrial crew.

With two friends, Ben and Darrin (Darrin Bragg) in tow, Reid drives to the base, and makes contact with an informant named Jelena (Jelena Nik) whose father worked at Area 51 before the government allegedly killed him. 

The group follows a plan -- using Freon suits -- to breach security at the installation and get inside, though Ben refuses to break in, and remains in the car.

The others manage to get inside Area 51, and start heading down a seemingly endless staircase towards the bottom levels of the mysterious facility…

“It would be easier to rob a bank than to break into Area 51.”

“Why does America deny UFOs?” One character asks in Area 51, and it’s a good question, actually, that informs a lot of the action in the film.  Reid boasts a personal reason for wanting to see the inside of the base, but Darrin’s reason is even better. He doesn’t like being lied to about important things. He wants to know the truth.

The question then becomes: is it better not to know the truth in this situation or live without knowing?  Does the government -- by maintaining the prison facility for the aliens -- have the best interests of the American people at heart?

Since Area 51 explicitly connects the UFO base to Guantanamo, we can extrapolate deeper meaning here. 

We know that a lot of the “combatants” at Guantanamo Bay were people sold into captivity by their country-men for a monetary reward, for instance, and that none have yet stood trial so that we can accurately and legally determine their guilt or innocence.  And this is after fourteen years or so of imprisonment.  The people trapped there are thus permanent prisoners, without hope, and apparently without legal recourse

Area 51 suggests that after nearly seventy years trapped in that subterranean cell, the aliens there are working their own cunning plan to get out; a plan for which they require the assistance of Reid. 

The scenes that discuss -- or rather speculate about the aliens -- are among the film’s best.  “They’re not cute,” one character asserts.  Instead, these beings can remotely cause migraine headaches, and probe your body and mind.  They exist in a kind of white-on-white world without end, without beginning, without upside-down and right-side up.  All these ideas come into play, little-by-little, in the film’s last act.  One of the creepiest scenes involves an elevator to the bottom floor of Area 51, where there is an apparent sleeping quarters (and play room!) for the captive aliens exists. The film also takes you inside an alien saucer, with interesting results.

In a way, all found-footage horror movies are about seeing something that has never been seen, and perhaps shouldn’t be seen.  Things like the Blair Witch, a rituals of the Illuminati (The Conspiracy), or even Bigfoot (Exists, Willow Creek). 

The question of the format’s plausibility arrives in the fact that often-times characters put themselves in real danger to see these (dangerous) things.  As Area 51 notes, “Looking and experiencing are two different things.”  

We all want to experience something out of the norm.  I have always felt this way (and I think Fox Mulder has always felt this way too): If we can just discover or experience something that society tells us isn’t real -- the Loch Ness Monster, aliens, what-have-you -- then we have proven, in some sense, the possibility of God.  There would be more in Heaven and Earth than our current stage of scientific development allows for, and thus we could, again, give ourselves the freedom to believe in magic.

Think about the categories of found footage films, so far.  We’ve seen movies about the supernatural (The Devil Inside, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Paranormal Activity, Final Prayer), aliens (Alien Abduction, Extraterrestrial, Dark Mountain, Area 51), urban legends, historical mysteries, and cryptids (Willow Creek, Crybaby Bridge, Devil’s Pass), and so forth.  All these categories involve proving the existence of something heretofore not captured on film.

Area 51 is about that journey of belief in sense.  Reid believes the answers regarding his abduction are in that base, but he’s really answering bigger questions.  Are we alone in the universe? What secrets do the aliens have?  Has the government known, all along (or at least since 1947) the truth about extra-terrestrial life?

In one stellar scene, Reid and Darrin engage in a home break-in, and the suspense is overwhelming.  They do so because they want to have that “belief” experience, and they expose themselves to real danger to get it.  They cross a line to reach that experience, and as the movie continues, they keep crossing lines. 

When delving into these issues, and taking a camera into Area 51’s research laboratories -- finding white alien blood and strange anti-gravity devices in the process -- Area 51 succeeds as a work of art. You want to keep watching, even though you know it’s all faked, because you want to see what’s revealed too.  Your curiosity gets the better of you.

At other times, though, Area 51 is a letdown. There’s a lot of running in and out of rooms, up and down staircases, and so on, and the frenetic action substitutes in some way for narrative development and even thematic closure.

Many found footage movies run out of steam after about 75 minutes, but Area 51 actually increases in interest during the last five minutes, and that’s why I noted in my introduction that you may wish for more.  There’s a feeling here that the viewer is close -- extraordinarily close -- to fascinating answers about aliens and their nature.  But then the movie steps back, and in true found-footage tradition charts the last moments of its primary characters instead of new horizons.

In this way, Area 51 ultimately ends up being trapped by the conventions of the found-footage format, rather than stretching its boundaries.  Still, this is a better “alien” found footage movie than either Extraterrestrial (2014) or Alien Abduction (2014), and there are moments here where you’ll be glued to the screen.


  1. John good review. You are so right that most Found Footage films loose their way in the third act. I would love to see Close Encounters Of The Third Kind remade as a found footage film. Albeit, I wonder if you would have to still set it in 1977.


  2. I've enjoyed your found footage Friday's as much as your savage Friday's.

  3. This makes the mistake of caring more about the fate of the main characters than the crazy existence of the aliens. "Alien Abduction" is far better and even "Extraterrestrial" scores slightly higher with me.