Area 51 the actual place has long been an obsession of conspiracy mongers, and has been speculated on in fiction, film and television for years, from The X Files to Independence Day. Director Jason Connery (the son of Sean Connery) offers his take in the After Dark Originals film 51. The film is uneven, and can't seem to decide on the tone, but does have a fair serving of tense action, and some great creature effects.
The set up of the film is that the US Government has finally acquiesced to public demands and is going to let a couple of reporters tour Area 51. Those reporters are Sam Whitaker (John Shea), a network news anchor of the Brian Williams variety, and Claire Fallon (Vanessa Branch), a high profile news blogger. Along with their photographers, they are led around the base by Col. Ronald Martin (Bruce Boxleitner). A running subplot involves two soldiers who serve as guards on the base, Schumacher (Jason London) and Sgt. Hannah (Rachel Miner), neither of whom are privy to the secrets held on the base.
While Col. Martin is making every effort to appear open and welcoming to his guests, he is hiding some pretty dark secrets on the base. One such secret, Patient Zero, is a shape-shifting alien, capable of taking on the form of any person he has had physical contact with, but only able to speak phrases he has actually heard them say. Patient Zero has been a model prisoner for years, but of course accomplishes his escape at basically the same moment that the reporters step inside the base. Soon enough, he has released a couple of other vicious aliens from their holding cells, and is doing his best to find his way to the outer world. The film then becomes something of a cat and mouse affair, with Martin and the reporters trying to get to the surface (they have been touring the subterranean parts of the base) with the help of friendly alien J Rod (VyVy Nguyen) who is telekinetic, which helps a lot when trying to escape from an amoral alien shape-shifter.
51 is uneven at best. There are moments of true tension, and some fairly good action sequences. And the creature effects are very good, especially considering the low budget, and the fact that the film was co-produced by the SyFy Channel, not usually an indicator of quality. On the other hand, the tone is very uneven. At times the film tries to be a tale of crusading reporters, speaking truth to power and challenging the Goliath of the US Military to come clean with its secrets. At other times, it tries to be a character study of the all too human soldiers, especially Schumacher and Hannah, who struggle with their own self identification as cowards. The problem is that neither of these themes meshes very well with each other, or with the general gory space alien splatter, and both dip too deeply into the realm of smarm. The military characters are too hastily drawn, too pat, and pulled too directly from real events (particularly the stories of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch) to seem real to the audience. It felt that they were more embodiments of a point that the producers wanted to make than actual people. The crusading reporter is even more of a cliché than the cowardly soldier who overcomes his fear, and these characters fare no better. Once again, their motivations and dialogue are mostly J-school boilerplate. They don't come across as human beings. This seems mostly to be a script problem, as the performances across the board are decent to good. A couple more drafts could have overcome nearly all the problems mentioned above, and fitted them nicely into the narrative, but the film can't quite get there.
In fact, most of the film's problems are script problems, issues with pacing or tone. The actors all do well enough (though there are no truly outstanding turns), the action set pieces are professionally staged, the makeup and effects are high quality, except for one or two atrociously bad CG background shots. There's even a bit of humor. 51 isn't horrible, but it isn't great either. It represents ninety minutes or so of diversion, with few expectations for excellence. Rent this one.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks pretty good. The image is bright and clear, and aside from the occasional grain there are few problems. There are some very accomplished creature effects in the film, and these are highlighted nicely.
The audio is available in both Dolby digital 5.1 channel and 2.0 channel, both in English. The dialogue is all crisp and easily understood, and there is no audible hiss or other problem. Subtitles are included in English and Spanish.
There are a few extras included on the disc. They are:
Behind the Scenes
At just over nine minutes, this featurette includes interviews with most of the main cast, and a few of the crew. They offer insights into the characters, and the general process of the film. Interesting but slight.
Rise of Nightmares Trailer: Is it Real?
This is a short video game trailer.
Rise of Nightmares Trailer: Welcome to the Nightmare
Another trailer for the game. It's unclear why they are included, as there appears to be no connection to the feature film.
The trailer for 51 comes in at 1:39, and is actually quite impressive.
Also from Lionsgate
Trailers are included for Scream of the Banshee, The Task, Seconds Apart, Fertile Ground, Husk and Prowl.
51 is based on a fairly clichéd premise: the military hiding a terrible secret that ultimately wreaks havoc. It doesn't introduce any startling new twist or angle, but it does a creditable job with the materials at hand, and delivers a fair to middling action horror film. It has its problems, and also its highlights. The cast is clearly having fun, and you will too, just don't expect Seven Against Thebes.