What has cinema taught us about Area 51?

From Independence Day to Zero Dark Thirty, the movies have fuelled our fascination with this top-secret military facility.


James McMahon


Thanks to footage captured via NASA’s Curiosity Rover, the average person has seen more of Mars’ surface almost 34 million miles away than they have of one of Earth’s most talked about locations. And yet movies have led us to believe that we know Area 51, the highly classified United States Air Force facility hidden away in middle of the Nevada desert.

Giant vacant hangars. Bright, whitewashed walls. A strange, inexplicable metallic hum emanating from a giant, requisitioned, grounded saucer. It’s a place that cinema has taken us inside over and over again, despite only a small, secretive number having been there and none of us ever being likely to – despite recent plans being made on Facebook.

Truth is, if any one of the two million people who have ‘liked’ Facebook’s ‘Storm Area 51, they can’t stop us all’ group made it into Groom Lake – to give the facility it’s official name – what would await them on the other side of barbed wire, electrified fences and heavily armed guards ordered to shoot on sight (something which happened just 30 miles west in January this year when a man strayed too close to the Nevada National Security Site), would be unlike anything we’ve seen depicted on film. And yet, whether it’s Paul, Fantastic Four, Lilo & Stitch or Zero Dark Thirty, cinema that has given us a framework of reference for the facility which has remained more of less unchanged with every depiction.

Perhaps we can attribute this to the famous scene at the end of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, where it’s revealed the off grid Hangar 51 (a splicing of Area 51 and the infamous Hangar 18, the area of the Groom Lake facility that’s long been alleged to have stored the wreckage of the alien-or-air-balloon 1947 Roswell crash) holds the Arc of the Covenant, despite the film being set in 1934 and the real complex believed to not have come into existence until at least 15-years-later. In a nice nod to the filmography of Harrison Ford, in the LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures video game, the hangar not only hosts the arc, but also Hans Solo, frozen in carbonite.

Incidentally, fans of trash sci-fi are invited to discover James L Conway’s 1980 action adventure, Hangar 18. It’s not a great film. Writing for The New York Times, critic Vincent Canby described the films alien craft as looking like, “an oversized toy that might have been made in Taiwan”. Somehow, however, the film achieved colossal success in the former Soviet Union, being a rare example of an action movie that managed to make it into the country. It must be presumed that Soviet officials saw the movie as damaging to America’s war efforts.

The first time most of us ‘saw’ Area 51, however, was in 1996, when Bill Pullman’s President visits the complex in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. He meets Brent Spiners’ Dr Brackish Okun, the facilities Director of Research and (perhaps) sometime bass player in the Grateful Dead. The scene genuinely irked the US military, who had planned on supplying Emmerich’s production with props, costumes, actual airplanes and the like… until they read the script. “Their one demand was that we remove Area 51 from the film,” writer and producer Dean Devlin says on the DVD commentary. “We didn’t want to do that. So they withdrew their support”.

It was the ’90s – and specifically the cultural phenomenon that was The X-Files – that popularised the public perception of Area 51. It was a decade wherein Area 51 became an American icon that was the equal to Elvis or Lincoln. It started with current Netflix fave Bob Lazar’s claiming he’d worked on the alleged ‘reverse engineering’ of one on nine flying saucers, the allegation being broken via an interview with investigative reporter George Knaap on Las Vegas TV station KLAS, with Lazar’s face hidden and using the pseudonym ‘Dennis’.

The next decade took in appearances in The Simpsons, the Tony Hawk’s video game franchise (and a game actually called ‘Area 51’, David Duchovny provided the narration for the 1996 title, unsurprisingly) and a slew of TV documentaries cashing in on the popularity of The X-Files (1995’s ‘The UFO Diaries’, 1997’s ‘Area 51: The Real Story’ and ‘Area 51: The Alien Interview’ from the same year). Incidentally, other than a mention in the season 10 episode ‘My Struggle’, Area 51 only appears in two episodes of the show; season six two partner, ‘Dreamland’, both from 1999.

Perhaps the reason why cinema shows us depictions of Area 51 that are so samey is due to what is actually there being so beyond the realm of human comprehension. Or maybe there’s just nothing of interest there at all. “Even if there had ever been any alien technology – or aliens – at Area 51, it would be long gone,” says Nick Pope, former UFO investigator for the Ministry of Defence. “Common sense dictates that the moment a military base starts getting namechecked in movies like Independence Day and TV shows like The X-Files, the cat is out of the bag, so any UFO-related material would probably long since have been moved elsewhere.”

But then he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Published 19 Sep 2019

Tags: Area 51

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