Director: Oren Peli; Screenwriters: Oren Peli, Christopher Denham; Starring: Reid Warner, Jelena Nik, Darrin Bragg, Ben Rovner; Running time: 91 minutes; Certification: 15
In 2009, Oren Peli all but reinvented the indie/found footage horror film with his sequel-spawning Paranormal Activity. I’ll remember the experience of seeing that film for the first time for as long as I live; sans expectations, I sauntered into the screening happy as a bird…then wobbled out 90 minutes later on shaky knees. Watching two people sleeping and an invisible demon on the market for a human body to call home was apparently enough to break me. Peli had tapped into horror’s golden mantra – that less is more – and executed it to perfection. Nothing happens in Paranormal Activity, yet it’s one of the most effective horror films in recent years; the sound of footsteps slowly ascending the stairs or the mere accentuation of a static buzz, alluding to the next scare, is enough to destroy your sleeping pattern for at least the next week.
Now we have Area 51, Peli’s long-delayed and anticipated (in some corners, at least) follow-up about a group of kids planning to break into the eponymous base and discover some of the American government’s most closely guarded secrets. The film sets itself up in pretty much the same way every found-footage flick does nowadays: three guys, one of whom unrealistically films everything they do, and a pretty girl who enters the frame later on and clearly has a stronger connection with one of said guys than the other two. Remember Earth To Echo, or Project Almanac? Exactly the same formula. But at least they were better films.
Even in attempting to look at this from a stand-alone perspective, i.e. ignoring Paranormal Activity completely, it’s a hugely underwhelming experience. Whether nitpicking or fatal, there are simply too many problems breaking up whatever semblance of a structure it has. For starters, the characters are idiots. They’ve just broken into someone’s house – someone whom they know to have been tangibly responsible for an ex-Area 51 employee’s death – so what do they do? Continue filming, of course. When you’re hiding behind a shower curtain with the house’s owner mere inches away, of course you keep your blinking camera on. But do they at least wear gloves? Ha! Of course not. One would be right assume they’re smart enough to have a little moment and decide it’s at least best to roll their sleeves down, but no. Not even when they’re IN AREA 51! I mean, seriously? Utterly moronic.
More problematically, though, it isn’t scary or thrilling. Even slightly. Perhaps Peli’s intentions this time are less geared towards getting under his audiences’ skin, which certainly feels like the case throughout, but if so, what are his intentions? What kind of response is he attempting to elicit? What is he actually trying to do with this film? It takes about 70 minutes for something to actually happen involving the mysteries of Area 51. When it does, it’s unclear how we’re supposed to react. It feels like, despite the delays in getting this thing made, they still weren’t sure how they wanted the third act to play out; what they wanted the kids to find. It’s rushed and generic with nothing to evoke even a little excitement. Essentially, the moment the kids get into Area 51 is the moment the film truly dies. How’s that for depressing?