The story behind Oren Peli’s long shelved follow-up to his 2009 debut Paranormal Activity is, perhaps, more interesting than the film itself – surely the anticipation it has built has been one of the biggest contributing factors to the poor reception in has seen on niche sites that normally go into bat for this sort of horror and sci-fi schlock. Area 51 was shot immediately after the theatrical release of Paranormal Activity and sat on the shelf for 6 years, seeing multiple test-screenings and reshoots as Paramount tried (and failed) to create what they believed would be another surefire hit. While I won’t say my expectations were high, I have been anticipating its release for a few years given the quality (or, at least, uniqueness) of the original Paranormal Activity film. Thankfully, my expectations were met – Area 51 isn’t some much maligned work of genius, wrongfully hidden away from the public eye by evil studio overlords, but it is a pretty fun time that does well to assist its audience’s suspension of disbelief with some cleverly constructed sequences, amongst a fair share of smart, cheap creature spooks.
The film is another low-budget exploration of some of the structural ideas floated in Peli’s earlier work, focusing on a group of twenty-somethings who plan to break into Area 51 after one of them experiences an extraterrestrial encounter. This isn’t just a rehash of his debut though – Peli has a number of new tricks in his bag, utilizing fake thermal-vision, night-vision and a number of other little quirks to augment Paranormal Activity‘s discrete tripod-cams experience. There’s an early hint that the team won’t find aliens there, stumbling across something more akin to a drone control center – this would have been a great little twist that would stray from the path of its contemporaries and would have sufficiently accounted for its unnecessary shelving (too politically edgy for Universal); unfortunately, in this sense, the film does exactly what it says on the cover introducing intergalactic entities in the film’s second half, although this move isn’t necessarily to its detriment.
Universal did not know what they had on their hands here: by nature of its extraterrestrial conceit this is a really difficult film to pull off successfully and Peli does extremely well with such a tall order, even though the film isn’t completely successful, with an ending that comes off as a touch undercooked. Had Universal pushed this out soon after the release of Paranormal Activity 2 to hold their audience over until a third installment was ready they would have banked some serious mint (given its budget) and the film would surely be seeing a better critical reception, lacking the production mythology and coming out before the glut of recent found-footage flicks. The delay-driven hype is just too big for this modest, imperfect production to grapple with successfully and, as such, it has seen a fairly poor critical and financial performance.
I’m not suggesting Area 51 is a fantastic film – far from it – but it is a very fun one, that manages to make a totally ridiculous premise somewhat believable, especially in the construction of an extremely realistic Area 51 laboratory and surrounding city. Its practical effects are great and while some of the CGI is terrible, most of it is at least passable and, at best, fantastic. The performances, too, are at a minimum passable and sometimes even great. Area 51 is arguably a far better constructed film than Paranormal Activity, although the latter is superior overall due to a strong premise that allows for the development of more tension, creative scares and overall believability – not to mention its far more effective conclusion.
This is not going to be a film for everyone, it’s B-movie roots and found-footage construction alone are more than enough to turn a number of viewers off, but for me, it works. If you’re looking for some cheap thrills, effective execution of silly concepts, and a little bit of ridiculous UFO action you can’t really go wrong with Peli’s latest. Actual movie aside, it’s interesting to see the kind of film that lays dormant on a shelf due to studio intervention, when other, far inferior Peli-related productions (Chernobyl Diaries, all of the Paranormal Activity sequels etc.) come out in its wake. As with Bryan Bertino’s Mockingbird, the studio has made a mistake sleeping on this release (it will likely never make back its budget and has lost much of its fresh lustre) and I shudder to think what else has been left to rot in the studio system’s vaults.