I saw The Belko Experiment at a chain theater (transitioning into yet another chain). During the pre-show pomp and circumstance, cheeky CGI landscapes referenced popular films to explain littering (bad!), emergency exits (good!), and…what to do if you see a suspicious character(!!).
The paranoia contained within this spiel, coupled with the notion of the ‘ol movie-house being a place where people ostensibly gather for a unified, non-malicious reason, also plays on the “what if” doubt that is the crux of Belko.
Everyone has experienced paranoia in the workplace at one point or another. After all, it’s an environment where words and actions have to be measured with a degree of caution…thus making it an inspired setting for a horror film.
When the drones at the Belko Industries offices in Bogota, Colombia find themselves in the midst of a “social experiment” that mandates the murder of their co-workers in order to survive, the most damning – and deeply felt – commentary is the true validity of putting on a suit and tie before parking yourself in front of a computer for 8 hours. This also echoes, albeit in a more perverse way, the politics of Fight Club – wherein characters beat the crap out of each other to compensate for the spiritual void that consumes their professional lives.
Belko doesn’t possess the intellectual curiosity of David Fincher’s cult classic, but also doesn’t set out to fulfill an overtly arch philosophy: at the end of the day, screenwriter James Gunn crafts nifty films in the sci-fi (Slither) and horror (Dawn of the Dead) realm, with occasional detours into areas in-between (Super). That directorial duties were awarded to Greg McLean – whose Wolf Creek films deal in nihilism and brutality – makes for an even more literal experiment behind the scenes.
Comparisons to The Office are easy, but it’s in the Hills Have Eyes-styled commentary – the savagery of humankind left untethered in a place where civility and order have been suspended – that Belko finds its strength. Yes, this is a story that’s been told before. And yes, it runs precariously close to the Saw leagues in terms of having its hypocritical cake and eating it, too. The difference is that neither Gunn’s script nor McLean’s direction completely blackens out the sun. This is a film of horrible decisions and worse actions, with hope often being pulled away at the most unexpected moments, yet it’s somehow not cynical.
The characters etch out enough personality within the preamble to make their eventual fates affecting. An integral part of this pressure-cooker concept is seeing who reacts how, and what traits spring to the surface as the situation deteriorates. The strategy of casting actors known more for comedy (John C. McGinley; Josh Brener; Abe Benrubi) works in a manner similar to that of Jordan Peele’s Get Out: familiar faces who may provide laughs in the early going, but spiral into something more sinister as the “experiment” progresses. Also on hand are Gunn’s own repertory company of Michael Rooker (as a maintenance man), Gregg Henry (as Tom Berenger), and Sean Gunn (as a paranoid stoner).
One of Gunn’s strengths is his sense of economy in storytelling, and in delivering unexpected plot turns that sync up with the characters’ actions. After the isolated building is locked down, Dredd style, the PA system conveys the kill-or-be-killed rules of the “game.” Rationalizations are made. Divisions begin. Alliances form. It’s Lord of the Flies with suits and ties.
While Mike (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Leandra (Adria Arjona) are the ostensible young protagonists, COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn) steals the show, because his villainy is marked by a difference in perception that, later, spirals out into flat-out survivalist misanthropy (and Goldwyn is fantastic at peeling back the layers of what could have been a one-note performance). To give credit where it’s due, the entire cast deserves kudos for the pretzel-twist of emotion they must contend with, often within the same scene.
That said, Belko doesn’t quite achieve greatness due to some borrowed parts: the paranoid stoner and his ramblings are a direct pull from Cabin in the Woods; the employees’ tracking-device implants recall Escape from New York and Suicide Squad (and all sci-fi points in-between); and the closing moments – which suggest science and sociology as little more than sadists getting off on torturing white(-collar) mice – recall Cheap Thrills.
And while McLean’s direction is efficient, some of his decisions (perhaps present in Gunn’s script) are intrusive in their comic relief: following a brutal scene in a restroom, the camera lingers on a “clean up after yourself” sign. Similarly, foreign renditions of “I Will Survive” and “California Dreaming” underscore violent montages like an anvil (ditto the use of opera during one particular massacre). Meanwhile, a late-occurring visual gag of a dog pissing on Belko’s perimeter fence is a moment that literally and figuratively takes us out of the movie.
There are some clever (if heavy-handed) touches that aid in advancing the themes: the tattoo of a flock of birds on Leandra’s shoulder provides a consolation of escape; a cornhusk figure Mike buys from a marketplace peddler is depicted as a talisman of luck; and the company slogan – “bringing people together” – is boldly lit in the lobby elevator bank as the situation gets progressively worse. Gunn is a diabolical overlord, consistently rejecting the conventions of this type of film – the symbolism doesn’t necessarily have a payoff, and those higher up the corporate ladder don’t have more favorable odds of survival than anybody else. The result is the type of fuck-all, joybuzzer ride that recalls the arbitrary character fates in Kevin Smith’s similarly jarring Red State.
Beneath the torturous premise and the bleak violence at its heart, Belko contains some brilliant character moments (the scene where Barry executes a row of underlings depicts an authentic moral struggle) and a good sense of pacing. At under 90 minutes, the film projects its claustrophobia and fear onto the viewer with vicious efficiency. While far from perfect, The Belko Experiment‘s moral quandaries and social satire are caustic, but not without truth and hope.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars