THE BELKO EXPERIMENT
Directed by Greg McClean
It’s Office Space by way of Battle Royale – so will begin almost every review of The Belko Experiment. Yet as high concept elevator pitches go it’s an immediately intriguing one. I expected many of us have fantasised about what’d happen if our workforce went to war. And with Slither/ Dawn of the Dead writer James Gunn supplying the script, and Wolf Creek/ Rogue director Greg McLean behind the camera, needless to say I was excited. For the most part, this optimism was rewarded.
So an office staff, probably not much different from your own, are on a visit to Colombia. However, after a the usual office larks of bad flirting, mediocre banter and shooting the breeze they find themselves locked inside. However, what’s much worse being stuck at work is getting forced to fight to the death. Unfortunately, for the 80 employees of Belko, a mysterious voice on the intercom orders them to do just this. It starts of small – half an hour to kill 2 people. However, things get more serious when heads start exploding from within (the reason for which will probably be very obvious, though it’s technically a twist). As the targets get higher, factions are formed and broken when team members need to pick between pulling together and tearing each other apart.
What elevates The Belko Experiment above other similarly themed films is that neither side of that tension is demonised. This conflict is manifested by cold, logical boss Barry (Goldwyn) and all round ‘nice’ guy office drone Mike (Gallagher Jnr) who duke it out for the soul of the group. And whilst we’re very ultimately meant to come down on the latter’s side, for the most part Goldwyn wisely plays Barry as a reluctant pragmatist rather than a villain. When he kills it’s not without regret, and the scene where he insists the music silences the sounds of bullets to the head it’s a great character moment. As a Tim from the office clone, Gallagher Jnr is easy to like though has less to work with. Yet what’s interesting is in emphasising the hopelessness of the situation, and regularly showing the consequences of disobedience, you start to wonder if he’s being naive.
Frustratingly the secondary characters cheapen this a bit. With an ensemble as big as the one in this it’s perhaps inevitable that they are mostly defined by single characteristics e.g. treacherous, loyal or sleazy (the worst offender being a horribly unfunny pothead). To be fair, this sort of problem is built into the premise: the bigger the body count then the thinner the characters. Yet it seems that the writers took the easy way out, and spoil some of their ambiguity by having the asshole characters align. Still, as the bodies hit the floor it never loses sight of the nastiness of the situation. Bits of it are a tough watch, in a good way, and it builds to a mostly satisfying climax – even if it’s fairly clear from the start who will make it to the third act (although this is not to comment on anybody who does or does not survive). Nonetheless, while the gore fan in me was pleased the black comedy fan was underwhelmed. A late twist gives the film some satirical bite, but also highlights just how absent it’s been from the rest of the film. Thus, though it’s very accomplished The Belko Experiment still feels a missed opportunity, and the mix of red blood and white collars could have been about any 80 people.
In a way this is maybe what Gunn and McLean are going for – after all, the question of what people do under pressure is a universal one. Yet it prevents the film from working on a secondary level and makes the explanation feel an underdeveloped afterthought. It also means the movie’s main drive becomes its stark brutality vs something more substantial. Thankfully, this element is done dead well and, despite a slow start, when they come the murders matter. The oddly plausible way the opening act unfolds also means that upon leaving you’ll be thinking ‘what would I do?’ And when the popcorn’s finished, and the beer bottle’s empty, isn’t that why we watch horror?