Movie Review: The Belko Experiment.
This movie is one experiment that fails miserably to entertain or say anything interesting.
I had high hopes heading into this film. Sure, the critics were luke-warm on this film, and it had lackluster sales in its first weekend, but I thought James Gunn had what it takes to pull off an upset. Gunn (famous for Guardians of the Galaxy) had previously managed some audacious satirical horror films: Slither was a smart terror flick that explored B-Movie tropes and small town values, and his script for the Dawn of the Dead remake was smart and tight. His penchant for homaging famous horror films made one hope the comparisons to “Office Space meets Battle Royale” would turn out to be high praise. Sadly, it is not.
The comparison to those films must surely have come from somebody in marketing, because nobody who had seen the final product could plausibly compare either of those films to this violent waste of time. It lacks the wit, satire, or memorable characters of Office Space, and its “kill or be killed” premise is a pale shadow of films like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games. In the end, this film revels in senseless violence and is peopled with despicable characters, making you wish YOU could escape the doomed Belko Experiment.
The Belko Experiment (2017)
The Belko Corporation runs a regional office in Bogota Columbia, staffed with American workers performing nebulous corporate activity. On the day in question, heavy security is on site to screen out the native workers. The American employees speculate about a possible terror attack, but are soon let in on the reason: A Voice over the intercom informs them that they are now part of a social experiment, and their first task is kill two of their coworkers, or else more will be randomly murdered.
The cast of this film is a mixed bag. There are some talented actors, such as Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead) and John C. McGinley (Scrubs) on staff. Unfortunately, their roles are mostly under-developed. The main crew, featuring John Gallagher Jr. as Mike, the good-hearted protagonist and Adrian Arjona as his love interest, are either poorly developed or are just plain repellent. Arjona’s character, in particular, comes off as petty, mean, and self interested. Mike is just a good guy cypher. In fact, for most characters, they only exist as one-note caricatures.
Going through the movie, I saw a ton of familiar faces…doing familiar things. So many of these characters are just thin stereotypes cast with actors and actresses who are nominally known for playing those exact same stereotypes. The few characters who get to play outside of their type-cast are in for a bad time, as the film absolutely LOVES to create compelling sub-characters only to murder them unceremoniously. Belko has a serious Game of Thrones complex, where it endears characters to you for no reason other than pissing you off when they die for no reason.
Doing Awful Things…
The poverty of the main cast undermines any investment you have in the premise of the film. Mike is a good guy who does foolish good guy stuff that gets people killed. Barry, the COO played by Tony Goldwyn, is a control freak and ruthless executive who does ruthless things that gets people killed. Most of the rest of the cast falls into these two bands: people willing to do stupid things that get them killed, or people who do awful things because they are awful people. There is only a handful of people who take actions that feel thought out and meaningful…and they get unceremoniously murdered.
The orgy of violence in Belko never feels earned or satisfying. Inaction leads the mysterious Voice to do most of the killing, and so we have no stake in the blood letting. People’s heads just explode. No social tension or bigger picture, just popping skulls. The one scene where the killing is methodical and tense is the best sequence. Tony rounds everyone up, and tries to play a ruthless but benevolent god. He kills the old first, and then those who have physical impairments. It’s a ten minute eugenics seminar. Here, the violence finally feels important to the story, but events intervene just so Mike and his friends can escape.
For No Reason.
Battle Royale, and even The Hunger Games, can get away with awful scenarios because of a bigger message. They’re social satires: Battle Royale lampoons the harsh treatment of undesirables by Japanese bureaucracy, and The Hunger Games intensifies the cliques and power struggles of adolescent life. They have a reason to use absurd and grotesque violence. Belko has no similar reasons.
At one point Mike confronts the Voice, asking why this situation has happened. The Voice has no real answer. It’s “science” and science doesn’t have a premise, just methods, it opines. Bullshit. That is the definition of science an idiot believes. For those at home, the first steps of the scientific method are “pose a question” and “make a hypothesis.” Both of these mean “have a fucking reason to do the experiment first.”
I Will Now Say Something Nice About this Movie.
Belko has some nice visuals. The building itself is interesting and well conceived. Adding to the setting, the lighting in this film is wonderfully done. There are many scenes that pop due to excellent contrast between light and dark, and the colors are rich and vibrant.
The music in this film is fun and subversive. Spanish versions of popular songs, each well suited to the situation that is unfolding, are littered throughout the film. I loved each song, and they provided the only meta-context for the proceedings of the film.
Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing.
By the end of this film, I was desperate for an explanation as for why it existed. Having a meaningful reason for the “experiment” would have been nice. On a larger scale, I needed a reason why this film which is part of a larger genre of social survival horror needed to exist. There’s just no compelling reason for this film to be.
I hated the characters, except for Michael Rookers’ maintenance worker and Melanie Diaz’ new employee, and both of those characters are completely crapped on by the script. The caricatures of ruthless efficiency and ineffectual benevolence embodied by Tony and Mike seemed extremely thin, and not worth investing in. There’s no discernible social message here, unless it is the tawdry pabulum of “offices are the killing grounds of the soul” or “people do terrible things when in terrible situations.” Neither of those messages are engaged coherently, and neither warrant such a vicious film. Do yourself a favor and go watch either Office Space or Battle Royale. At least those gems have meaning.