The Belko Experiment (2017)
Written by James Gunn
Directed by Greg McLean
The employees of Belko Industries’ Bogota, Columbia office, are off to another day of work. The company is a non-profit specializing in getting Americans jobs in other countries around the world, so a very high-end staffing agency. Mike Milch is put off by the newly hired and overly aggressive new security outside the building but shrugs it off. As the day begins, everything goes south, when an external presence takes over the building, locking it down in every way possible. The P.A. system is used to inform the employees that they have to kill two of their co-workers or there will be consequences. Of course, the employees call the voice’s bluff, and an example is made by detonating what they thought were innocuous tracking chips used in the case of kidnapping. Now human nature begins to reveal its true face when it becomes every man and woman for themselves.
For The Belko Experiment to work, it needs to focus on a particular aspect of its hook. The hook is that this is a film about employees in an office being forced to turn on and kill each other. If the movie is just a gore-fest, an orgy of violence, then it’s going to be really boring. But, if the film is about the hesitancy and pain that goes through the participants, non-killers being forced into a mindset they have never had to face, then you have an absorbing film that is dealing with ideas, not shock. The film starts in this space of proposing an interesting idea and showing the grim horror people are faced with…and then devolves into a cold, soulless orgy of violence *sigh*. Characters who have never killed before suddenly become badasses able to wield semi-automatic rifles without a flinch.
This is the film is from a script written by James Gunn and something he was toying with making back in 2010. His divorce caused him to shy away from such a bleak topic at a time when he needed a little more positivity. Years later he came back to it, but this time decided to work in the producer role while letting Australian director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) take the directorial role. I’m not familiar with McLean’s work but have ended up watching most of Gunn’s work since his 2006 film Slither. I even saw The Specials, a superhero comedy he both wrote and stars as Minute Man in. So, I have always understood his sense of humor and style, while not always loving it.
The Belko Experiment was drawing me in during the first act. The hook is a good one, but there is an overwhelming number of characters to follow. They are introduced in very broad strokes with only a few getting interesting, complex relationships. I seriously didn’t realize two characters were different until a third of a way into the film. There are a lot of familiar character actors: John C. McGinley, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer. But there are so many players, very few of them get much screen time, and they are interesting enough for you to want to see more of them.
Because of the jarring nature of the film, it never really settles on a tone. There are shades of Office Space in the early interactions between employees. James Gunn’s brother, Sean Gunn, stars as a custodian who is convinced this is all a corporate psychology test and then that the water is laced with psychedelics and this whole experience is fake. This sort of goofball silliness hits the brutal mass killings taking place at the same time with so much tonal dissonance I’d be surprised if you aren’t taken out of the film.
The Belko Experiment is not a terrible movie. It has a strong premise and excellent cast but never seems to know what kind of film it wants to be. The pendulum swings so violently between comedy and brutal, gory violence that I expect most audience won’t feel very settled.