In Area 51, three intrepid dude bros—Reid (Reid Warner), Darrin (Darrin Bragg), and Ethan (Ben Rovner)—hatch a scheme to break into the most secretive military base in the country, the one in Nevada that every self-respecting UFO nut has circled in red pen on their wall map. It’s a job better suited to Tom Cruise, or maybe to a treasure-hunting Nicolas Cage, but at least the boys come prepared. Culling together a list of the base’s extensive security provisions (oh, the things you can find on the web these days), our heroes load up their trunk with thermal goggles, hazmat suits, an electronic signal-jammer, and other pieces of equipment one might assume were out of the price range of twentysomething office drones. They’ve also got a hand-drawn map of the facilities, the badge and fingerprints of an employee, and, of course, a couple of trusty video cameras to film everything they encounter. First stop: the Hooters presidential suite in Las Vegas. From there, it’s on to a sprawling, heavily guarded government compound. Road trip!
This is the type of movie you can play out in your head in advance, from the first shaky handheld image to the last. Part of the supposed appeal of faux-verité thrillers is the sense of impending doom, the knowledge that the goofballs on screen are blithely documenting their own final hours. But there’s a fine line between fatalism and suspense-zapping predictability; by opening with talking-head interviews that announce the disappearance of its central trio, Area 51 zooms right over that line. It also suffers from the usual lapses in found-footage logic. Even if your goal was to get video evidence of something, would you really keep filming while running for your life? If so, would you also take care to keep the camera pointed in the right direction, perfectly framing the chaos exploding around you?
One might expect more from Oren Peli, director of the original Paranormal Activity and hence one of the most influential figures of this profitable, un-killable movement. Peli understands better than most that a movie like Area 51 should lean on a hangout vibe before the screaming starts. But his amateur muckrakers aren’t especially likable or interesting. Leader of the pack Reid, who “loses time” during a prologue party scene, is simply drawn to the title location, relinquishing the need for Peli to grant him any sort of motive or curiosity. Darrin, meanwhile, has no personality to speak of, which leaves Ethan to play both resident douchebag and voice of reason. Everyone ignores the latter’s protests, even after rendezvousing with a young woman (Jelena Nik) whose father was killed for doing the same shit they’re attempting.
What Paranormal Activity had going for it, beyond the ingenuity of its practical effects work, was a clever formal gimmick: By returning to the same static camera setup over and over again, Peli trained his audience to study the frame for minute variations, and to get an instinctual flush of unease every time he cut back to the angle. There’s nothing so singular about Area 51, which was shot years ago and now looks basically indistinguishable from the countless fake-doc horror movies released while it remained hidden. The film only picks up during the inevitable, extended finale, when Reid and company discover—surprise!—that infiltrating Area 51 may not have been the brightest idea in the world. But though Peli stages a few fun and creepy effects shots, nothing that happens here couldn’t be surmised from simply reading the film’s title. An IMDB synopsis promises “unimaginable secrets,” when what we really get is a complete failure of imagination.