Release: Friday, March 17, 2017
Written by: James Gunn
Directed by: Greg McLean
Office workers at a mysterious nonprofit organization on the outskirts of the Colombian capital of Bogotá participate, let’s call it reluctantly, in a twisted social experiment wherein they must murder a certain number of their colleagues within a certain timeframe or else everyone in the building goes kaboom. Instructions are disseminated throughout the facility by a disembodied voice via the company’s P.A. system.
Directed by Aussie Greg McLean, clearly an apologist for B-horror schlock, and written by Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn, The Belko Experiment isn’t so much experimental as it is perfunctory and predictable. Worse, it’s unenjoyable, a sick fantasy overflowing with blood and admittedly inventive kills. The story is a floundering attempt at social satire, an interrogation of human psychology as people become thrust into life-or-death situations.
The Belko Experiment opts for a cartoonish, histrionic treatment rather than a nuanced exploration of specific characters, a design flaw in the writing that ultimately proves fatal to the infrastructure as a whole. The film spends all of ten minutes introducing several role players, such as Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian as a pair of orange-suited mechanics, a few office drones played by a smattering of bit-part actors like Rusty Schwimmer and Josh Brener and a new hire in Melonia Diaz’s Dany. It establishes these people fairly convincingly within the context of yet another ordinary day, but once the chaos begins everyone seems to shed their humanity faster than they can clothing.
The voice initially instructs that two people must be killed or indiscriminate killing will commence. Those who lapped up the exploding heads phenomenon at the end of Kingsman: The Secret Service will be as happy as a pig in shit here. The stakes become more serious as they’re soon told that if 30 people aren’t killed within two hours, 60 will die. With blood pressure and despair mounting, the workers become divided into two factions — the corporate honchos, led by the slimy COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn) and supported by the brutish and intensely creepy Wendell (John C. McGinley), and then everyone else, the underlings corralled by office nice-guy Mike (John Gallagher Jr.).
Gunn’s screenplay tries to shock the system, and occasionally succeeds, but the technique is more manipulative than natural. His story is primarily concerned with mass hysteria and its effects on the individual. Tension stems from whether the group should be taking the voice seriously or whether to dismiss it as some sick prankster. The higher-ups prefer obedience because they see no other way. Mike and others believe there’s a non-violent solution. Meanwhile, Mike’s girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) is concerned that his defiance is going to get more people killed than necessary.
As the chaos builds it becomes increasingly apparent the film’s dalliance with philosophical concepts like self-preservation and Darwinian theories on survivalism is more of an accident than a serious pursuit. The story just isn’t smart enough to be convincing in that way and that’s made painfully clear in the thoroughly anticlimactic Big Reveal. For all of the nastiness that tries its damnedest to shock and repel, it’s the total lack of creativity and originality in the film’s final moments that is the most obnoxious of all.
Recommendation: The Belko Experiment manifests as a deliberately unpleasant and vicious social experiment that’s underwritten, overproduced and not well enough acted for those other shortcomings to go unnoticed. In short, it’s difficult to reconcile James Gunn’s contributions to this picture with what he was able to do with a certain Marvel property. It’s a night-and-day difference to me, not just in terms of tonality but quality.
Running Time: 88 mins.
Quoted: “Now is not the time for timidity.”
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