Area 51 is a found footage film released in 2015 that is directed by Oren Peli and written by Oren Peli and Christopher Denham. The film follows three friends who carry out a plan to break into the top-secret Area 51 military base with the hopes of finding evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence that is suppressed by the government.
The film opens with interviews of friends and family of three friends who mysteriously disappeared, Reid (Reid Warner), Darrin (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner). Reid’s sister offers a tour of Reid’s room, which includes a wall map of Area 51 and numerous book and videos about aliens and U.F.O.s.
From here the film transitions earlier in time and introduces Reid, Darrin, and Ben attending a party. At some point during the evening, Reid mysteriously disappears and is later found standing alone in a trance-like state in the middle of a nearby road. Reid has no recollection as to what happened to him.
Three months later, the three friends pack for a weekend trip to Nevada where they plan to infiltrate Area 51. Among their gear are body mounted video cameras, spare batteries, gas masks, freon tanks, a signal jammer, and a host of additional supplies.
En route, the group meets up with Jelena (Jelena Nik) whose father used to work at Area 51 before reportedly killing himself. Jelena shares all the intel her father collected while working at Area 51, including maps, security protocols, and the name of a high-level employee he was following. Upon arriving in Nevada, the intrepid group head into the depths of Area 51 only to discover that there could never truly prepare for the terrors they would ultimately encounter.
Found Footage Filming Reason
The found footage filming reasons used in Area 51 are sound. The opening interviews are filmed as a documentary shot after the footage of the three missing friends is recovered. Most of the pre-Area 51 footage is captured at Reid’s direction who insists on filming everything to document their findings. Likewise, the group films everything during their venture into Area 51 in an effort to both document their findings and capture proof of extraterrestrial life.
Found Footage Cinematography
The cinematography used throughout Area 51 film is generally good. The film uses a combination of handheld video cameras and body-mounted video cameras, and daytime and night vision modes.
Early scenes in the film rely primarily on a handheld video camera, which comes across as very natural. The characters often pass the video camera to one another as they film each other. At no point does the cinematography come across as overly staged or artificial. The characters also utilize monocle night vision cameras, which offers a unique (and somewhat limiting) point of view. These scenes appear on-screen as a single circle containing the footage. Also unique is the use of green night vision, which is customarily used with military-grade night vision video cameras. Green night vision provides the greatest contrast, making it easier for soldiers to see their targets.
In order to mask their heat signatures, the characters wear full body suits filled with freon. According to the science presented in the film, anyone wearing one of these suits is undetectable to heat sensing cameras and equipment. The characters use these suits to evade the Area 51 security. If nothing else, these suits offer interesting onscreen visuals. When Darren films Jelena wearing a freon suit using a night vision video camera, she virtually disappears.
While the first two-thirds of Area 51 utilize tightly controlled and methodical cinematography, the final third of the film is very chaotic and often dizzying. Most of the footage captured during the final third of the film is of the characters running through a maze of hallways, tunnels, corridors, and stairwells. The pace is so fast and chaotic during these final moments that some viewers may find these scenes difficult to watch.
In some respects, Area 51 is a victim of its own success. More often than not, larger budgets have a tendency to negatively impact the perceived realism of found footage films. The overt use of CGI in Area 51 takes away from the realism of the film. The same can be said of other larger budget found footage films such as Cloverfield (2008) and Chronicle (2012). The film would have benefited from spending the additional budget on more elaborate practical effects, which would have maintained the gritty realism commonplace to most found footage films.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity, which also takes the filming reason and cinematography into consideration, is good overall. As mentioned earlier the overt use of CGI, although seamless, still comes across as CGI and takes away from the found footage realism of the film.In this particular film, specific plot elements also impact the found footage purity.
In this particular film, specific plot elements also impact the found footage purity. The ease at which Reid, Darrin, and Jelena circumvent the Area 51 security defies plausibility at times. Many of the gadgets and hair-trigger techniques used in the film fall in the realm of what one would expect to see in the Mission Impossible series rather than a found footage film.
As a result of these often fantastic plot elements, many viewers watching Area 51 will have to suspend disbelief for the duration of the film. Since Area 51 is a work of fiction, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. However, truth-defying plot elements typically do not belong in found footage films, which owe their existence on viewers taking the content at face value.
Reid Warner as character Reid does a good job playing the obsessed abductee intent on uncovering the truth behind Area 51 and understanding what happened to him at the party he attended some three months earlier. In a similar vein to Heather from The Blair Witch Project (1999), Reid Warner does a good job at pushing his supporting cast to move forward with the mission.
Darrin Bragg and character Darrin plays the convincing friend who is also intent on finding out more about Area 51. He shares Reid’s enthusiasm. Ben Rovner as Ben performs admirably as the standoffish friend who reluctantly goes along with their plan. When the plan comes to fruition and it’s time to execute, Ben backs down, never thinking the plan would actually take place.
Jelena Nik as character Jelena is convincing as the equally obsessed friend to Reid. she wants to know what her father died for and will stop at nothing to find the truth. It’s the shared curiosity of these characters that provides the impetus for following through with their plan. Reid’s disappearance and the death of Jelena’s father create a believable bond between these two people.
The very notion of breaking into Area 51 and finding evidence of alien life is a fantasy shared by countless people in the United States and abroad. This film will most likely appeal to the sensibilities of such viewers. As a found footage film, Area 51 hits all of the right notes from a technical standpoint, but lacks plausibility in some of the more fantastic plot elements, which (as mentioned earlier) require a healthy dose of plausible deniability. Fans of Area 51, U.F.Os, aliens, conspiracy theories, and science fiction will most assuredly have fun watching Area 51. Despite the film’s challenges, it’s a fun ride.