The fatal allure of Netflix is its bottomless pit of sub-standard films and TV which offers constant mind numbing distractions from the dispiriting tedium of real life. It was in this nihilistic spirit on a quiet and unproductive evening that I found myself with an equally cynical friend watching Area 51, a recent addition to the already oversaturated genre of found-footage horror. I’ll be honest, I approached Area 51 with a number of prejudices. First of all, I was painfully underwhelmed by the Blair Witch Project which popularised the whole craze. Whilst I can respect it for pushing the aesthetic boundaries of film-making, the narrative pace was borderline-monotonous and the genuinely frightening scenes were few and far between. Acutely aware that this defect seems to characterise most films of the genre, I began watching Area 51 with accordingly low expectations. My second preconception stemmed from the film’s one-star rating although the so-bad-it’s-good films can be an entertaining genre in their own right.
Within the first few minutes, it becomes immediately clear that these galling meatheads barely share a brain cell between them.
Nonetheless I tried to remain open minded, encouraged by the likes of Trollhunter and Unfriended which proved not only that the found-footage genre can be done well but that it is one of the few mediums within film that is still actively innovating. Area 51, however, gets off to an abysmal start as we are introduced to three totally unsympathetic frat boys-cum-alien hunters who divide their time between getting piss drunk and exposing the existence of extraterrestrials. After a close encounter of the third kind, Reid, the presumptive leader, becomes compelled to investigate the inner-workings of Area 51 and his annoying friends regrettably come along for the ride.
My suspension of disbelief suffered within the first few minutes as it becomes immediately clear that these galling meatheads barely share a brain cell between them as one of the lads decides to taser himself for a laugh, leaving me to wonder whether this motley crew are capable of effecting a break-in at one of the most secure military facilities on the planet. The boys must also moonlight as hedge fund managers as they apparently possess the means to purchase a range of hi-tech equipment including state of the art thermal cameras, signal disruptors and freon-cooling suits which, if they existed, probably wouldn’t come cheap.
Despite the irritating characters and distracting plot holes, the film reserves a treat for anyone who can be bothered to get through the first forty-five minutes before the characters actually get to the eponymous air force base. At this point the film really begins to pick up pace and we begin to glimpse the fruits of the $5 million budget. The set design is impressive and the production team did a commendable job creating eerie interiors, perfecting the right level of exposition whilst leaving plenty to the imagination.
Having said this, the producers clearly didn’t think through the practicalities of designing a military base – I am pretty sure there are more layers of security at LMH than there are depicted in Area 51. For the most part, the protagonists were free to explore the hidden secrets of the base seemingly undetected by any sort of security. I can only assume the film was set in a parallel universe and the point of divergence was that CCTV was never invented.
As Area 51 reaches its climax it shifts tone from building suspense and intrigue, with a faithful commitment to conspiratorial folklore, to a more conventional supernatural horror with effectively executed jump scares and shaky camera chase scenes through narrow corridors. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic but it provides a decent sense of closure and one which I personally found adequately satisfying.
Area 51’s critics have highlighted its predictable plot and poor acting. I can sympathise. As far as the story direction goes, it’s hardly an Agatha Christie novel and the actors aren’t likely to win any Oscars for their improvised masculine banter which pads the dialogue in between set pieces. Still, Area 51 deserves more than its crushing one-star rating. The production value is surprisingly high and it provides a mildly entertaining way to wile away an hour and half. That may not sound like an enthusiastic endorsement but it is more than can be said for most of the bilge which debases Netflix’s catalogue.