Syfy’s original movies are invariably versions of a Frankenstein monster — stitched together from pieces of other sci-fi fare. So it is with “Area 51,” a more-energetic-than-most exercise that happens to share its title and broad premise with an upcoming feature from the director of “Paranormal Activity.” Mostly, this one plays like a classic haunted-house tale, with journalists and soldiers fighting off slavering aliens in the depths of the notorious top-secret military base. If nothing else, it’s an amusing demonstrating of how to leverage blood sprays and creepy music in lieu of expensive special effects.
Directed by Jason Connery (yes, Sean’s kid) from a script by Kenny Yakkel and a story by Lucy Mukerjee, “Area 51” is a kind of mash-up from “The Thing” (the stomach-turning 1982 version) and “Alien.” The tale opens with two newsmen (John Shea, Vanessa Branch) and their crews being given tours of the facility, with the commanding officer (Bruce Boxleitner) offering a partial show-and-tell session, hoping to quell reports of hidden aliens.
But of course, there are extraterrestrials within — and they pick the worst possible time to bust loose. This leaves the skeleton crew below fighting for their lives, as an alien with shape-shifting abilities picks them off one by one. (The shape-shifting concept also shrewdly dispenses with the need for FX, since the menace looks like a different human at any given moment.)
Up above, meanwhile, the poorly informed soldiers must deal with their own flesh-chewing monstrosity, forcing the eventual leader of their dwindling ranks, Sgt. Hanna (Rachel Miner), to strip down to a T-shirt and go all Ripley on the thing’s ass.
To their credit, Connery and his collaborators manage to keep the audience guessing until near the end, primarily by pulling out absurd twists incubated in the bellies of earlier movies, which does create its own kind of shorthand.
That a business model exists to support such cinematic cheesiness is either encouraging or simply puzzling, depending on one’s point of view. All told, “Area 51” is better than much of what Syfy programs on Saturday nights, but like the contents of the movie’s mysterious base, the world would probably be better off if it stayed hidden.