Lionsgate // 2011 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // September 23rd, 2011
The military's best-kept secret just broke loose.
I've never been the biggest sci-fi nerd in town and military movies are a pretty tough sell for me, but I genuinely love monsters ripping people apart. With that in mind and my general success with After Dark's series of original films, I had relatively high hopes for 51. Alas, none of us are perfect and neither are production companies. This is, by far, the worst film I've seen on the label, and the reasons are very clear.
After decades of pressure from the media and the public, the government opens the Air Force base famed for its theoretical housing of alien life, Area 51, to a tour. Guided by Col. Martin (Bruce Boxleitner, Tron), TV journalist Sam Whitaker (John Shea, Lois and Clark) and blogger Clare Felon (Vanessa Branch, Suburban Girl) arrive with their photographers to witness the mysteries of the base. Ideally, this was supposed to be a canned tour to show the public that there it is little more than a high tech warehouse, but as soon as they arrive, the residents of the deep levels of the base escape their cells. Suddenly, secrets become less important than survival as they colonel tries to get his troops off the base alive.
My heart sunk the moment 51 started, when the first production credit read Syfy. Indeed, though there is no mention of it on the packaging, this film debuted on Syfy Network, the dark dungeon of terrible made-for-cable movies. It's not the worst thing that's ever appeared from that hole, but it's not very good, either. Rarely will one find a movie more predictable that this, where every single moment has been telegraphed by the last half century of cruddy sci-fi films. From the opening moments of the story, there's little doubt how the whole thing will play out; seeing everything confirmed so exactly is ridiculous.
If the movie is going to be this obvious, then the execution had better be great, but 51 has little to recommend. The story is bad enough, but the characters and performances are the worst offenders. Those seeking military toughness, look elsewhere; these are the whiniest, most mincing soldiers you'll ever find. I don't think it's on purpose, either, the dialog alludes to character depth that is never realized. The reporters are just as dumb, with John Shea playing the most generic and lame television anchor that could possibly exist and Vanessa Branch as an Arianna Huffington clone (which actually made me laugh a little); it's a huge group of lameness who are both ineffective in their roles and really boring to watch.
The only good that can be said about the 51 is that they went with practical effects for the aliens rather than the easier and worse computer graphics. The creatures aren't the best I've ever seen, but they look fairly interesting and, at least, give the actors something real to work around, not that they take advantage of it, but at least they're given the opportunity. The aliens aren't very original, but nothing in the film is; they look pretty good, though, and account for all the bloodshed, so the inanimate objects are the least of my complaints. Anything living, however, is terrible. 51 is simply a bad film, with almost nothing to redeem it.
The DVD for 51 comes from Lions Gate and performs like a made-for-cable release. The anamorphic image suffers from some compression issues and a lack of detail. With a very artificial looking grain structure, the transfer is much worse than it should be. The audio, on the other hand, works quite well. While the stereo mix is nothing to write home about, the surround track is loud, full, and utilizes the surround channels very well. The only extra is a making-of featurette, but it's pretty good, if short and lacking in detail.
I probably shouldn't feel so disappointed by a sci-fi military film, but I've had such good luck with the After Dark Originals that I suppose I blinded myself by the label. Ultimately, the practical effects are the only positives about the film, as the poor performances and ridiculously predictable story sink everything else. Don't make the decision that I made; 51 looks bad because it is bad.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R