[28 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the world of horror, there are several distinct levels. The top is reserved for the classics, the terror tropes and titles that continue to resonate centuries after they were first spun beside spooky old world campfires. The next is for the also-rans, the near triumphs that have cultish fans foaming for more recognition. They fuel many a blustery blog post. Then there are the average offerings, the ‘just missed the mark’ mediocrities, the steaming piles of the pathetic, and then the ‘so bad they’re good’ guys. Below this, in an abyss so deep it swallows natural light whole, comes the offerings of cable’s The Syfy Channel. While some can be enjoyed as crap camp or kitsch, the vast majority are just terrible. How dreadful, you say? Well, slice into the speculative stupidity of its angry aliens on the loose lameness entitled 51 and see how indigestible a monster movie can be.
With the public breathing down its neck and conspiracy theorists arguing the worst, the US military decides it’s time to ‘declassify’ Area 51 and offers up a guided tour of Hangar 18 to some select members of the media. The hope is that, by seeing the lack of evidence with their own eyes, the world will stop obsessing on the top secret instillation. Under the guidance of the hardnosed Colonel Martin (Bruce Boxleitner), a carefully chosen collection of complainers, including journalist Sam Whitaker (John Shea) and online diva Claire Fallon (Vanessa Branch) are allowed in. Unfortunately, just as this carefully staged ruse gets started, the truth comes out - there are indeed aliens here…and they aren’t too happy about being held in captivity. In fact, once they break free from their basement prison, they begin picking off the participants one by one.
Dumb doesn’t begin to describe 51. It’s like a legitimate grade Z schlock fest decided to have a lobotomy and then celebrate its stunted brain pan with the rest of the resistant planet. This movie is so intellectually and artistically challenged that it practically drools. You expect it to arrive in a hermitically sealed capsule, a massive label on the front warning of the possible loss of IQ points upon exposure. While one shouldn’t except champagne from a channel that changes its call letters to look more hip (hopeless is perhaps a better description), this is the lowest that SyFy has ever sunk. Even mockbusters by The Asylum have more gratuitous guts than this. Actor turned director Jason Connery (yes, the son of Sean) has no right being behind the lens. He doesn’t understand the basics of fear, or how to derive suspense out of a simple set up.
Besides, who could be afraid of pathetic plastic creatures like these. Back in the days before widespread use of CGI, mediocre renderings in low budget films were more or less forgiven. After all, if you can’t afford high quality F/X, it’s really not your fault. You just do what you can. Today, pre-teens are cranking out memes with more memorable visuals than this laughably bad thriller. As with its other flaws, 51 goes for the old school man in suit conceit, and fails at that in dramatic fashion. Since this being is supposed to be like The Thing - i.e. a shapeshifter that can mimic other life forms - we expect some splash. As a matter of fact, the notion of an Aliens/Carpenter classic mash-up sounds sensational. Instead, what we get here is boredom - and lots of it.
This is the kind of experience where the actors aren’t even sure what they’re supposed to do. The soldiers present were clearly trained by a weak-willed wet nurse since all they do is babble and blunder like a bunch of unskilled infants. When they’re not running in abject fear they’re shrieking like school girls. Our investigators also come across as creatures of comfort and convenience. They want the scoop - they just aren’t willing to truly ‘work’ for it. Granted, they aren’t war correspondents or seasoned field professionals, but if you had a chance to change the course of world events with your knowledge of life on other planets, wouldn’t you fight a bit more for the facts? These may be questions to complicated for something like 51 to address. After all, it seems dead set on being as dopey and derivative as an Albert Band nightmare.
While there is nothing really wrong with being a copycat - the genre really could exist without recycling - 51 finds a way to turn imitation into the sincerest form of…garbage. You really shouldn’t be thinking about how much better the blood test sequence from the aforementioned ‘80s epic was while watching another film. Similarly, when James Cameron called up his Marines to battle acid-spewing space bugs on a remote planetary power plant, they were capable badasses. With 51, everyone is Lt. Gorman (Google it). Sources should inspire, not render one inert, and yet Connery can’t seem to inject any life into the proceedings. We don’t care for the characters, find ourselves constantly checking the time, and praying that all this unnecessary nonsense will pay off. It doesn’t.
Instead, 51 uncovers a way to make itself even more irrelevant. As a sidelight, as a minor diversion in a day filled with stresses, something like this might ease the ennui. It may also add to it as well, especially when you consider that there are other, better examples of the type waiting for you in the creature feature catalog. There is nothing wrong with finding favor in an effort that announces its badness early and often. There is also nothing right about cheating fright fans out of 90 minutes of their life. 51 does much more of the latter. Instead of being out of this world, this extraterrestrial excrement stinks.