Warning: This review contains some plot information that might be considered spoilers, so proceed at your own risk if you have not yet seen the film
The Belko Experiment takes place almost entirely within the walls of an isolated seven-story office building on the outskirts of Bogot, Colombia. The building is home to Belko Industries, a multinational corporation that does something or other having to do with job recruiting. The white-collar denizens who work there suspect that something isn't quite right when they arrive to work one morning and are greeted by heavily armed military guards demanding identification and checking under their cars with mirrors. But, once they enter the gleaming glass building and start to go about their work with laptops, Post-It notes, and copious cups of coffee, everything seems perfectly normal. That is, until the intercom system that they didn't even know exists crackles to life, and an ominous voice informs them that there are 80 people currently in the building and by the end of the day most of them will be dead. They are then instructed to murder two people among them, otherwise even more people will be killed.
And thus begins what eventually devolves into a day of utter carnage, as otherwise ordinary-looking men and women, almost interchangeable in their business attire accentuated by fine grooming habits, are turned against each other in an increasingly pitched game of survival being orchestrated by an outside force whose goal is left unclear until the film's final moments (although the word experiment in the title is a pretty obvious tip-off as to what's going on). Before the blood starts spattering, we are given brief introductions to characters who clearly will become central players in the unfolding chaos: Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), a slightly scruffy everyguy who is carrying on a workplace romance with Leandra (Adria Arjona), who is being all but stalked by Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley), the office creep; Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), the chief operating officer; Marty (Sean Gunn), a skinny stoner who works in the office cafeteria; Bud (Michael Rooker), a burly engineer; and Dany (Melonie Diaz), the office's fresh-faced new hire whose first-day information session, especially the part about having had a tracking chip implanted in her in case of a kidnapping, is particularly important.
With the main characters roughly sketched in, the film then goes about fleshing them out by following their reactions to rules of the lethal "game" they are being forced to play. Mike becomes the film's conscience, as he refuses to regress to primal violence despite his own survival depending on it, while Barry, who is revealed to have a military background in special ops, takes the practical approach of ensuring his own survival at the expense of others. Conventional morality is turned upside down as Mike and those with whom he aligns hold fast to a sense of civilization and decency while Barry and those with whom he aligns embrace the idea that killing some will save others. Nothing is black and white, as each side's reasoning is flawed (Mike's argument that they shouldn't kill is undermined by the fact that whoever is running the show can and will kill even more people if his directives aren't followed, while Barry's argument is undermined by the fact that there is no guarantee that the killing will stop at any point). The fundamental question, if there is one, is whether a descent into savagery is ever truly warranted or if we just make excuses to justify our violence.
The screenplay by James Gunn, who started his career writing blackly comic horror films at Troma before graduating the mainstream writer-director mega-success with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), feels like something Larry Cohen might have concocted back the mid-1970s (on a much smaller budget, of course) as a veiled commentary on corporate greed run amok. There are traces of such ideas in The Belko Experiment, but none of its really comes into focus. Because of the film's setting in a gleaming corporate environment that is steadily reduced to a blood-splattered slaughterhouse, it is hard to resist the tendency to view it as some kind of condemnation of corporate "murders and executions," as Patrick Bateman so famously Freudian slipped in American Psycho (1999), but nothing really adds up. If anything, the film is a vicious portrayal of the lengths to which scientists will go to understand human nature, which is probably better understood through actual historical abuses of human subjects in various scientific and social-scientific studies.
It is, in some regard, an effective dramatization of how different people do and don't embrace their inner primal animal, which aligns it most with William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies about stranded British schoolchildren descending into savagery and Battle Royale (2001) and The Hunger Games (2007), both of which depict young people forced into games of survival against each other. Director Greg McLean, best known for his grisly outback slasher pic Wolf Creek (2005) and its 2013 sequel, is certainly game, and he ramps up both the suspense and the gore, leaving no skull uncracked or wall unsplattered. There are some effectively queasy bits of black comedy sprinkled throughout, like the use of a Spanish language cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" over the opening credits as the interchangeable office workers go about their morning rituals or a cut to a sign on a bathroom stall in which several people have just been gruesomely slaughtered with a hatchet extolling employees to keep it clean.
The film is at its best in the early stages when everyone is trying to figure out what to do in a situation whose reality they can't quite fathom. Gunn offers some interesting characters, most of whom react almost exactly like you think they will, but there is still something compelling in watching them go their different ways. Unfortunately, as the film becomes bloodier and bloodier, it also becomes more and more deadening, with each subsequent death a little less shocking and impactful. Perhaps that is part of the point, but when the film's climax involves one of the characters who has insisted on nonviolent solutions going completely crazy, it's hard not to wish that there was some oomph left in the carnage. There is a nice denouement in which our desire to find out who is behind all of this and to see that person get some kind of righteous punishment is fulfilled, but it is of course followed by a standard (but not ineffective) horror film trope suggesting that the horrors we have witnessed are, to some extent, just the beginning.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Orion Pictures
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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