I’ve gone on the record numerous times about my dislike of Paranormal Activity. The series as a whole has had at least one high point (the third movie) but that first movie did not, and continues to not, do it for me at all. I find it to be a largely uneventful slog with unlikable leads. So what if I told you that the director’s follow-up, only now being released after being filmed in 2009, provides an experience that is even less eventful with even less likeable leads? I’m sure you would wisely avoid it. Me on the other hand, well I spent 90 minutes watching it simply because it was the first entry I hadn’t seen in the Netflix horror selection. Lucky me.
Area 51 is the second found footage movie in a row in this October marathon. It shows the story of three friends who have gone missing as of the start of the movie. One of the friends, Reid, has become obsessed with aliens and Area 51 after suffering a bizarre episode at a party where he was found standing out in the middle of nowhere with no recollection of how he’d gotten there. The three meet with a variety of people, including the daughter of an Area 51 scientist who was fired after threatening to expose their secrets, and form a plan to break into Area 51 and find out just what’s up.
There’s some potential to that premise, but the biggest issue is that the actual Area 51 break-in doesn’t happen until about an hour into the film. At least Paranormal Activity made attempts at suspense until the big finale, this one seems to have no interest in providing you with even the slightest hint of tension. The closest it comes is an extended sequence where the trio breaks into the home of an Area 51 employee so they can steal his access card. The whole thing takes place in night vision and aside from one cheap jump scare, only manages to pad out the running time to an acceptable length. How am I supposed to feel afraid for these characters when they spend the entire time talking in a volume that would definitely get them caught immediately?
Earlier I called the characters unlikeable but to be fair, they’re more just bland than anything. There’s absolutely no reason to give a shit about anything that happens to any of them. Their banter is stiff, their actions often baffling and there’s no real reason for them to be doing what they are doing other than Reid feels he has to.
When we finally get into the bowels of Area 51, things do pick up at least a little. You get a few glimmers of suspense between a smattering of bad CGI and quick flashes of something potentially interesting before the camera turns away from the action. It may not be much, but compared to what came before it’s a nice change of pace. I’ll take “kinda boring” over “excruciatingly boring” any day. The problem is that you get a lot of set-up with no pay-off. They hint at the goings-on (going-ons? Both sound wrong) within the facility but you never actually get any sense of closure on any of it. Whether it was deliberately obtuse or that was planned for a sequel that will never come to fruition, it’s all pretty meaningless and adds up to a whole lot of nothing as it stands.
I’m not sure if this movie just sat in this form for six years or if it was being tweaked during that time frame, but no matter which way you look at it it’s not hard to see why nobody was terribly eager to send this out into the world. Maybe in 2009 it would have worked better, but as of 2015 the found footage genre has been so beaten into the ground that this blends in with the rest of the unremarkable lot.