You’d be forgiven for thinking the premise of The Belko Experiment sounds familiar. Following a group of American employees at a Colombian office building, a typical day at work quickly becomes a sadistic social experiment when the workers are instructed to start killing one another in order to avoid being killed. It’s a little bit of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Funny Games rolled together, all somehow set inside an off-kilter workplace comedy.
Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) begins the proceedings by sardonically showing us the sanitized office setting of Belko Industries, but don’t let the film’s mild set-up fool you. Once the office building goes into lockdown, the pleasantries quickly vanish, making way for the bloodshed and exploding heads. There’s no other way to say it: The Belko Experiment is very violent. However, for those who aren’t too squeamish, there’s a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to the film that does help ease some of the brutality of what’s being depicted on screen. It’s more camp than torture porn; decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.
The Belko Experiment seems like a bit of a surprising choice to get a major release, having gotten its start on the festival circuit and featuring no A-list names. It doesn’t aspire to be much more than a high-concept, low-budget cult film, and it seems like it’ll have far better longevity on Netflix than it will at the box office. I suspect a lot of its pumped-up profile has to do with the involvement of James Gunn (best known for directing the Guardians of the Galaxy films), who takes on writing and producing duties here.
The irony of that, of course, is that the script is easily the film’s weakest element, never quite finding the balance between schlock and social commentary. The set-up features the sort of cardboard characters and snarky one-liners that we come to expect from this grade of horror flick, and then once the shit starts to hit the fan, Gunn never pushes the “moral dilemma” aspect hard enough, which should be at the film’s core. It instead becomes a matter of who’s going to turn into the big, bad villain that everyone else has to defeat. There’s a smart film buried within Belko that we get hints of, with its wry commentary on corporate life, and it would have been nice to see more of that, rather than a reliance on overworked clichés.
One aspect of The Belko Experiment that works both for and against it is the cast, which is huge. Clearly Gunn gave some of his friends a ring, because there’s no other explanation for how the film manages to land a character actor trifecta of John C. McGinley, Tony Goldwyn, and Michael Rooker. (Google it if the names don’t sound familiar – you’ll know all their faces.) All three of their characters are written to varying degrees of ridiculousness but are very fun to watch.
John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom, 10 Cloverfield Lane), meanwhile, might seem like a weird choice for the lead role but perfectly balances the everyman aspect of his thinly-written character with the badass “action” direction he has to go, all the while bringing a bit of genuine emotional heft to the proceedings. Most of the other actors are in the film too briefly to make much of an impression, and at least half a dozen of them could have been trimmed without anyone really noticing. It’s just another example of how Belko largely squanders its potential, settling for low-brow pulp when it had all the goods to be something more.
That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Belko that work. McLean has a firm handle on the direction and carries the viewer through smoothly, even as the plot becomes outlandishly chaotic. And while the film fails to deliver on its premise in terms of the explanation provided for why the “experiment” is happening, it does manage a gut-punch of an ending. (It’s also a suspiciously sequel-friendly one, but I guess we can’t begrudge them that.)
Gunn has talked about how long The Belko Experiment percolated in his mind before getting made, and it does end up feeling overworked, never quite hitting any of the marks it seems to want to. However, the ride is still a mildly fun one – assuming your idea of a good time is at least a little bit twisted.