Written by: James Gunn
Directed by: Greg McLean
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, and Adria Arjona
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"At the end of the day, people are out for themselves..."
Blumhouse joins together strange bedfellows with The Belko Experiment, a film scripted by James Gunn and helmed by Greg McLean. The latter built his reputation on the back of one of the more sadistic, bleak feature debuts in Wolf Creek, and, while Gunn is obviously no stranger to bloodshed, a wry sense of humor accompanies his penchant for violence. Itís an odd pairing, but certainly not one without intrigue: one could easily imagine something devilishly clever from these two, especially given the wicked ďOffice Space meets Battle RoyaleĒ premise. Unfortunately, however, it doesnít quite live up to any of thisóI suppose itís a breezy little thriller, but it relentlessly hammers on one nihilistic, obvious note for its brief runtime.
The Belko Experiment feels like the easiest, most predictable approach to an otherwise clever hook: on what appears to be another uneventful day at work at Belko Industries in Colombia, the employees have clocked in and settled into their office routines. Suddenly, though, the workday doldrums are interrupted by a sinister announcement over the intercom: the employees must kill two of their coworkers or face random deaths at the hands of the mysterious group thatís hijacked the building. At first, the employees laugh it off, believing it to be a prankóuntil some of their heads begin to spontaneously explode. It turns out the ďsecurity chipĒ Belko implanted in the back of their necks is actually a bomb that doubles as a hostage device, as the mysterious voice threatens to detonate 60 of them at random if the Belko employees donít kill thirty themselves.
So begins a twisted experiment that escalates with each passing hour as the befuddled group weighs options that donít really exist since the entire high-rise has been locked down. For a brief period, no one seriously considers offing their co-workers, but that quickly goes to hell once COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) recruits a couple of goons to act as henchmen. Together, they form a faction thatís hell bent on satisfying the demanded bloodlust, leaving the rest of the employees to fend them off. The hasty degeneration here signifies either the filmís lack of interest in exploring the psychology of such a harrowing situation or its superficial insistence that people are prone to become psychotic, murderous assholes under duress.
Either way, itís a sign that The Belko Experiment is content to only skim the surface of its premise and mostly mine it for fits of brutal violence. And thatís fine, to an extentócertainly, Iím not one to dismiss a riotous gorefest that looks to repaint an entire skyscraper with blood and guts. On this front, it does deliver. Heads explode with regularity, and McLean doesnít shy away from lingering on the gory, brain-splattered aftermath. A character savagely pummels a manís face into oblivion with an axe. Another man has his head literally dented in by a wrench before he expires in disturbing fashion, something I donít think Iíve ever seen before.
Usually, Iíd be pretty excited to rave about this sort of thing since the effects are both unyielding and impressively realized. In this case, though, theyíre in the service of such a relentlessly grim movie. The Belko Experiment is nihilism and misery manufactured on demand, and it has little interest in engaging with its violence. Nearly every outburst feels like a money shot of some kind, which is anathema to how bleak the film actually is. This is a film that insists that the innate cruelty of humankind promptly surfaces under pressure, an assertion thatís hardly revolutionary. Not that the relative lack of unoriginality is the worst of its problems; rather, its dispassionate, almost clinical approach is much more damning. Once you see the coworkers begin to turn on each other, youíve seen just about everything it has to offer, and it continues to pound on this note one headshot at a time.
Obviously, thereís a place for this kind of grim horror, so donít confuse my criticism as dismissing the tone out of hand. Hell, the presence of Michael Rooker here conjures up memories of one of the genreís bleakest and brilliant entries in Henry, so itís not the violence thatís off-putting so much as the lack of imagination or thought behind it. With Gunn involved, you expect some kind of wit or subversion, but his presence is only notable during fleeting bursts of oddball humor (much of it arriving courtesy of his brother Sean, who plays an especially paranoid conspiracy theorist). Most of these moments are easily snuffed out by the overwhelming grimness, though, and only hint at a sharper, cleverer film. Beyond heightening the typical office dynamicsóthat creeper in the adjacent crucible (John C. McGinley) is a real asshole, for exampleóThe Belko Experiment doesnít have much bite, save for its decision to paint white businessmen as the villains, a decision that seems pertinent since a very white businessman and his cronies are currently dead set on fucking the world up at every turn.
But even thatís a bit of a reach: The Belko Experiment is no satire, and its rare instances of humor donít really jibe with the otherwise miserable tone. Nor does the weirdly rousing sentiment of the climaxóby the end of the film, youíre practically invited to delight in the previously meek charactersí turn towards violence. Itís the old Virgin Spring/Last House on the Left routine, only executed much more clumsily and obviously. I mean, the film literally climaxes with an exchange between two characters insisting neither has really accomplished or changed anything. Nihilists, dude. To the endóall the way to its final revealóThe Belko Experiment insists on reveling in nastiness for its own sake. Humanity is awful, it says, and makes a half-assed attempt at making the audience feel complicit by craving the violence.
Other than the overwhelming sense of a missed opportunity, The Belko Experiment is fine, and probably suffers from the high expectations its pedigree inspires. Some bits work well, like Rookerís slight and all too brief role as a maintenance worker, a character that could have served as an empathetic center if the film even bothered to have one. The closest it comes to this is John Gallagher Jr.ís Mike Milch, an everyman Belko employer and default white male protagonist, if Iím being honest. Heís fine but forgettable, but I was much more interested in Melonie Diaz, who spends much of the film skulking around, removed from the carnage, seemingly set to subvert the leading man trope. Sheís a new employee, which sets up the possibility that her tracking device hasnít been activated just yet. You spend most of the movie assuming there must be something important about her, only to discover there is, in fact, not.
I suppose itís just another one of the filmís cruel tricks, another ďgotchaĒ moment to accentuate the endless parade of spontaneously splattered skulls. Itís the only trick The Belko Experiment really knows, save for some adequately menacing performances from McGinley and Goldwyn, plus a few bravura sequences from McLean, who at one point shoots the exploding heads as if they were a pyrotechnics show. Itís neat enough, though you canít help but sense even these moments feel a bit out of place.
Whatever inspired bits The Belko Experiment does boast donít quite gel, and, while I can say itís a decent enough rebound from the ultra-forgettable The Darkness, it still doesnít live up to McCleanís Aussie efforts. Itís more a misfire than a complete dud, but itís a tad underwhelming all the same, especially coming from this creative duo.
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