The Belko Experiment (2017)
Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use
Score: 2 out of 5
The Belko Experiment is a B-grade action/horror movie that could've been a great, scrappy, darkly comedic satire of office politics and corporate culture... if only the filmmakers had given it room to breathe. Smothered by an oppressively dark, serious tone and a strange unwillingness to have any fun with its setup, it lets its actors, its effects work, and its moments of brilliance go to waste as it fails to live up to and explore all of the potential of its twisted "Battle Royale in a cubicle farm" premise. Who ever thought that a movie like this could be so boring and by-the-numbers?
And make no mistake: the premise is what makes this film. Our protagonists are the employees at Belko Industries, a nonprofit consulting firm that helps American companies do business in Latin America. One day, the eighty American employees at Belko's office tower outside Bogota, Colombia find that none of the locals have showed up, apparently due to a criminal threat. So far, so normal. Less normal is when the building is put under lockdown, with metal shutters coming down over the windows -- and a voice on the intercom demanding that they murder two of their number. Management attempts to brush it off as a hacker playing a sick joke, until this "hacker" demonstrates that the "tracking chips" implanted in their necks (ostensibly to find them in case of kidnapping) are actually bombs by blowing the brains out of four random employees. Now, the voice is demanding that the remaining people inside kill thirty of their number, or else sixty will die. Some people refuse to budge, others attempt to seek help, but a few roll up their sleeves and "get down to business". The fight for survival is on.
Scattered throughout the film are hints at broader social commentary, of a kind that isn't unusual in these sorts of "deadly game" movies. Battle Royale satirized the Japanese education system, The Hunger Games and The Running Man were set in exaggerated plutocratic dystopias that extrapolated contemporary income inequality into the future, and this film, underneath all its graphic bloodshed, seems to be trying to explore the hyper-competitive environment of many modern offices, as well as the manner in which office drones are treated as disposable by their bosses. A no-holds-barred fight to the death happens while a video of a motivational seminar plays in the background, the casual sexism shown by John C. McGinley's character towards the female lead bluntly foreshadows his turn to villainy once the shit hits the fan, and Tony Goldwyn's COO Norris becomes the leader of the bad guys as he sees fit to decide which of his employees gets to live or die. What it doesn't do, however, is pull them together into a cohesive whole. The ultimate reveal of the villains' motive at the end falls flat, while the moments of humor that poke through (the stoner who's convinced that they've drugged the water, the Latin music they play as Norris starts going off the deep end, the first and last death scenes) clash with the otherwise grim, straight-faced tone of the entire production. Knowing writer James Gunn's work from Guardians of the Galaxy, Slither, and the Dawn of the Dead remake, particularly his penchant for humor, something tells me that he and director Greg McLean (best known for the brutal Australian horror film Wolf Creek) weren't the best fit for one another, their two styles clashing and often leaving the film with a case of whiplash. The fact that the writer and director seemed to have very different visions for the film goes a long way to explaining why so much of it seemed like such a missed opportunity to do more with the material.
If you're looking for cheap thrills, you'll find them here. The bloodshed is about as much as they could show without getting an NC-17 rating, and while it's rarely creative, the effects work still packs a punch and shows just enough that you can see some serious damage, the highlight being a great scene of a man with a massive dent in his skull from a wrench wondering where he is as he succumbs to brain damage. The cast is good all around, led by John Gallagher, Jr. as the hero Michael (a name I'm 99% sure was borrowed from Office Space) and a mix of cult actors and unknowns filling out the rest of the cast. The problem is that I've seen it all before, and I've seen it done better at that. Once you take away the fact that all of this is set in an office building, there's not much separating it from other films of its ilk, which is why it was so disappointing that the more satirical elements that the film sometimes nodded at never really broke through to the surface. As a B-movie, it just wasn't much fun thanks to its overly self-serious tone, and since it's working on a B-movie level, it's kind of important that it be entertaining. I was mildly thrilled throughout, but never was I genuinely invested in any of the characters or the action going on at anything more than a purely visceral level.
The Bottom Line
This is one of those movies where you can tell that there was a really good movie waiting to crack the surface, only it's held back by a formulaic plot procession and an unwillingness to indulge in all the fun, outlandish potential of its core idea. Wait for Netflix on this one.