I would not want to be Oren Peli this year.
Sure, he had a monster hit for Paramount in the form of “Paranormal Activity,” and they paid a pretty penny for his follow-up film, the still-in-production “Area 51.” So the studio obviously feels some affection for Peli, or at least for his earning potential.
But let’s play the game and pretend we’re Hollywood executives, and we’re looking at two films on our release slate that both deal with very similar topics. On the one hand, we’ve got this little found-footage movie about Area 51 that’s made by the guy who made a surprise hit for us, and on the other hand, we’ve got a movie from Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams, a film that supposedly taps into the vibe of early Spielberg and that also seems to use Area 51 as a jumping-off point.
That’s a whole lotta Area 51 to digest for a general audience, don’t you think?
The first question, of course, is just how similar the projects really are, and since they’re both being made under a veil of secrecy, that could be a hard question to answer. After all, until we revealed the project’s existence last week, no one even knew “Super 8” existed. Even when I published the title, I still didn’t know what the film was, and it was fascinating listening to guesses from sources who had actually been close to the project. If even they were confused about what the film’s going to be when it shoots this fall, then Abrams and Spielberg have done a great job of locking their project down.
With “Area 51,” the veil of secrecy is somewhat different because Peli doesn’t work with a standard screenplay, meaning it’s harder-than-usual to crack the secrecy, but not impossible. I’ve read the 40-something page document that serves as Peli’s “script” on the film, and I’ll give him this: it’s as accurate a title as “Babies” was this weekend.
Based on that teaser trailer, it looks like “Super 8” deals more with what happens when something that comes from inside Area 51 escapes, and it looks like a film that takes an early-Steven-Spielberg approach to that basic idea. That sounds sort of fantastic to me, like “Signs” without all that silly hogwash about God killing someone’s wife so he’d realize you need to hit aliens with a baseball bat and then pour tap water on them. What made those early Spielberg films like “Jaws” and “CE3K” so great was the way they felt absolutely grounded in the real world, the way character and texture was more important than anything else, and the way the fantastic felt like it was genuinely fantastic, and not just a special effects package that someone was giving a workout. I hope that the Abrams film really does tap that mood, and I look forward to a full year of speculation, anticipation, and slow, controlled leaks of information.
“Paranormal Activity 2” is aiming for an October release this year, and so far, Paramount hasn’t announced any date for “Area 51.” The film is done with principal photography and in post now, and based on the treatment I read, there are a number of effects sequences that they’ll have to nail down before they release the movie. Although it’s still a movie that relies on sounds and suggestion more than overt appearances, “Area 51” is more ambitious than “Paranormal Activity” was, with a much larger cast and a much larger premise. There are some fairly elaborate sequences late in the film, and I’m curious to see how much Oren Peli chooses to show in the film. He makes things very clear in his treatment, but he also writes about ways that things can be disguised or only partially revealed.
Peli’s film will feel like familiar ground for fans of his first film or fans of UFO lore. Last year’s “The Fourth Kind” actually touched on similar themes and ideas, but I still can’t figure out what the makers of that film thought they were accomplishing with their bizarre use of “real” footage intercut with recreations. I thought “The Fourth Kind” was a nearly unwatchable mess, and I think it’s hard to really get the alien encounter thing right. There’s very little that’s new when people play with these ideas, and Peli’s script certainly doesn’t redefine anyone’s notion of what Area 51 is. A group of friends, including a girl whose father has had several abduction encounters, decides to find a way to get onto the base at Area 51 with hidden cameras so they can bring back proof of what’s going on out there. Things get weird. That’s pretty much the whole thing. All of the footage will once again be shot from the POV of either a handycam that someone’s using or the cameras that the kids hide on themselves. It’s not a found-footage film so much as it’s an intentionally-captured-footage movie, and I’m guessing it will play as a fun haunted house. I don’t think Peli’s trying to fool anyone with his “this is real” technique… instead, it seems to me to be a way to play with perspective and audience empathy. When you’re watching something that was shot by one of the characters, you’re supposed to be pulled into the film more completely. It’s a technique that is designed to make you feel like you’re watching something genuine, and Peli pulled it off with aplomb with “Paranormal Activity.” I’m surprised he’s going to try to do it again, because there are far more examples of it being done badly than there are of it being done well, and a big part of what makes one of these films successful is the dumb luck of chemistry. Katie and Micah had rock-solid chemistry in “Paranormal,” and so audiences were willing to hand themselves over to the gimmick. We’ll see if Peli’s able to put together a similar cast this time around.
The thing that would make me nervous if I were Peli is that his film represents a $5 million investment to Paramount, while “Super 8” is said to be priced somewhere north of $50 million. If either of those films is going to get the bum’s rush from the distributor, it’ll be “Area 51,” and it would certainly make sense for it to happen. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a studio release two movies in the same genre dealing with a similar subject within the span of a year. It’s one thing for Disney and Dreamworks to go head-to-head with movies like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” or for Touchstone and Warner Bros. to battle it out with “Wyatt Earp” and “Tombstone.” But for one studio to put two movies out about the same basic thing… that’s sort of unheard of. And then to complicate things, Universal’s still looking for a date for “Paul,” the Nick Frost/Simon Pegg movie from director Greg Mottola about two comic-book nerds who take a cross-country drive after the San Diego Comic Con, only to end up with a little grey alien in their RV who just escaped from Area 51. Obviously they’re going to be playing the comic version of the idea, but that’s a whoooooole lot of Area 51 in the marketplace in a very short period of time, and something’s going to get the short end of the stick.
Like I said… I’d hate to be Oren Peli this year.
Let’s hope I’m wrong.
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