Have you heard about 51? Probably not. This low-budget sci-fi action thriller has all the earmarks of a Straight-to-Video release, from the pulpy concept – an alien prison break at Area 51 – to a fairly low rent cast which includes Jason London of “No, I Wasn’t In Mallrats” fame. That’s because it’s a Straight-to-Video release, obviously, which usually isn’t a reassuring indicator of quality but in this case means jack squat. 51 is one of the most entertaining movies of its kind, with a smart screenplay, a finely directed cast and memorable monster effects that put CGI to shame. It’s not the best movie of the year, but surprisingly it’s one of my favorites. Then again I actually enjoy this kind of thing.
Like many a low-budget monster flick 51 takes place in an isolated location, in this case an underground military bunker called “Area 51.” Now obviously Area 51 has been the stuff of legend since alien conspiracy theorists caught wind of the place, which was allegedly (allegedly) where a crashed alien spaceship from Roswell, New Mexico was taken for study. In 51, the government has decided to dispel these ridiculous rumors once and for all by allowing the press full access to the facility, where Colonel Martin (TRON’s Bruce Boxleitner) has been ordered to give two reporters – Lois & Clark’s John Shea and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Vanessa Branch – full access to the facility’s top secrets… except not. Colonel Martin engages in a series of misdirections and gambits to make them think they’ve uncovered all of Area 51’s mysteries, when in fact the real story lies below them in a series of holding facilities for alien threats.
The protagonists of 51 are smart people with full backstories and well-reasoned, distinct points of view, which is a rarity in big budget releases, let alone low-budget Straight-to-Video fare. The plot is likewise intelligent without getting lost in a quagmire of unnecessary twists and turns. When the aliens break free and run amok throughout Area 51, the action is suspenseful and easy to follow. In fact, most of the frustrating clichés found in films of similar subjects and scope are avoided here. The actors give fine performances, even those not known for their skillful work (Jason London’s a lot better in 51 than in the similar, but worse, Showdown at Area 51), and the monsters are all memorably designed practical effects as opposed to the sub-par CG we’re used to in this kind of thing. Director Jason Connery and his screenwriters Kenny Yakkel and Lucy Mukerjee have turned in superlative work right up until the end, when an otherwise wholly satisfactory climactic scene fumbles a bit through awkward coverage, which seems to imply that the entire sequence was found in the editing room during post-production.
It feels like 51 was made by people who actually cared about making a great movie, were talented enough to pull it off and used all the tools at their disposal to make it superior to its competition. The script isn’t a jumble of familiar genre clichés, and establishes an intriguing mythology all its own. The monsters are all different creatures with distinct abilities, and have names and relationships to their captors that makes them memorable antagonists. The revelations at the end of the film don’t just expand the plot, they also enrich the characters involved. The dialogue is good-natured without being jokey. As a whole, 51 is a film with a genuine rapport with its target audience, offering spirited fun with beloved subject matter without ever outright pandering to sci-fi or horror fanboys. It contributes to the world of genre filmmaking without ever overextending itself, and although the film isn’t a game changer in any way it’s hard to imagine anyone who watches 51 being disappointed in the slightest.
51 lands on DVD with a thoroughly pleasing audio/visual presentation and only a single extra, but it’s a good one. The “Behind the Scenes” featurette provides a nice, brief glimpse into the production that is entirely worth watching. But the real treat here is the film itself, which for fans of low-budget science fiction movies justifies every awful piece of crap we’ve had to sit through to find a gem like this. 51 is low-budget entertainment that actually entertains. It's on DVD and VOD starting September 20th, and it's definitely worth seeking out.
CRAVEONLINE RATING (Film): 8.5/10
CRAVEONLINE RATING (DVD): 9/10