Area 51 (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Oct/150

Area 51 (2015)

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What happened to Reid, Darren, and Ben?  They used to party, get up the nerve to talk to girls, and have a good time.  After a weird event Reid's life went from parties to star charts, and he slowly draws his friends in to an expedition to uncover the truth behind Area 51.  Oren Peli writes and directs Area 51 and stars Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Jelena Nik, and Ben Rovner.

She has the freyon suitLooking into the future, I wonder what currently despised genres will inspire think-pieces about how little-appreciated they were at the time.  Douglas Sirk's wonderful melodramas of the '50s received a much deserved critical reevaluation in later years, and the more time goes by the more it seems Halloween will be one of the most important films in American cinematic history.  There's already a large number of articles online about how the found-footage genre needs to die, but it's produced some of the most interesting films of the last few years.

Oren Peli is one of the architects of the found footage empire though he's only directed Paranormal Activity.  Since then he's continued producing, but not directing, and in-between each installment has had the good sense to produce other horror films like The Lords of Salem.  Area 51 marks his return to directing and made a measly seven grand against a five-million dollar budget.  It's a shame so many people skipped this the first time around and hopefully it finds a second life in digital rentals and word of mouth.

Is it worth it to violate someone else's space in order to justify your own paranoia?

Is it worth it to violate someone else's space to justify your own paranoia?

Area 51 isn't a great movie by any stretch (especially compared to the masterful Lords) but it shows one of the pioneering found-footage artists stretching the medium in interesting ways.  While great found-footage horror films have still been produced with this year's Unfriended likely to land in my top five, I've been more interested in what found-footage artists have done outside of horror.  Peli's film is less horror and more laced with the kind of conspiratorial tones which fuel conversations held much too late into the night and right when we're most susceptible to suggestion.  The monster show which fuels the later acts of Area 51 is less impressive, but this nervy tone in the opening hour is something to behold.

A lot of the unsettling effect comes from the way Area 51 is edited by Jake York.  Much of Peli's dialogue has the characters making crazy-sounding observations, only to cut off the last part of their sentences before shifting suddenly to a new scene.  Peli and York deny us any "plausible" explanation of what's going on and keeps us guessing at the motivation of these UFO hunters.  Since we're not given the full-picture, it throws a moral shade over decisions like when Reid (Reid Warner) pushes his friends to break into a home for a security card so they can test their theory.

Peli keeps these moments visually tense.  We're denied the full picture from the dialogue, and the morally shaky moments deny us the view of the full frame with partial-lens shots in night vision and sometimes with heat sensors.  I felt queasy when the camera lingered on the room of a little girl fast asleep when the friends are trying to sneak out of the home, just like I felt queasy when they go to a strip club and film the unaware dancers.  They're mimicking the violations they think the government is up to, all in the name of "the truth".

What this means is brought into fantastic focus when the friends speak with other abductees and the camera films each of their "truths".  The man who saw them as a sculpture is bathed in a shaft of light in the religious experience he's having but isn't admitting to, signs of the American economy litter the ceiling above one who wonders why America would keep people in the dark about this, and multicolored stars fly on the wall behind a man who talks about the migraines he had post-abduction.  Cinematographer Todd Grossman does an amazing job in these moments and his work is a reminder that great cinematography can be just as subtle as the wide swaths of color and shadow which often win awards.

The thermal imagery is sparsely used, but reminds us of the lingering effect these experiences have long after the producer is gone.

The thermal imagery is sparsely used, but reminds us of the lingering effect these experiences have long after the producer is gone.

I was also fond of Peli's script as it elicited nervous laughter and great diegetic reasons for Area 51 existing as it does.  He has a matter-of-fact way of framing both the believers and skeptics among Reid's crew with earnest proclamations like "She's not gonna get us caught she has the Freon suit" simultaneously highlighting how ridiculous it is but also how thoroughly planned Reid's investigation is.  Disappointed though I was in the turn for the monstrous Area 51 at least still kept the same effective cinematography.

Area 51 isn't as effective as other found-footage films stretching their boundaries outside horror like Into the Storm, but I love the way Peli is experimenting with the format.  He plays with the way fear metastasizes in our perception and actions in response to an other mostly felt and rarely seen.  If his Paranormal Activity success means he gets to keep doing films like Area 51 I'll be a happy and interested writer.

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Tail - Area 51Area 51 (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Oren Peli.
Starring Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Jelena Nik, and Ben Rovner.

Posted by Andrew

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