[Note: This post contains spoilers. Updated 3/30/17.]
The film’s marketing is doing its level best to convince potential viewers otherwise, but director Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment doesn’t really work as a horror-satire. The film isn’t particularly trenchant in its depiction of a white collar workplace-turned-abattoir, and it doesn’t skewer any aspects of contemporary office culture that haven’t been skewered far more effectively elsewhere. Certainly, there are tongue-in-cheek bits that do work, some of them understated, most of them sledgehammer-obvious. However, Belko is first and foremost a survival horror picture, and assessed on its merits as a specimen of that sub-genre, it’s a respectable entry with some gloriously nasty moments.
Unfortunately, the film’s fundamental problem is that it seems to be striving towards a droll and incisive Grand Statement about the corporate world of the 21st century, yet it never bothers to articulate anything of the sort. It’s a one-joke film. The premise itself—a bunch of officer workers are locked in their place of business and coerced to murder one other—is the satire. To their credit, McLean and screenwriter James Gunn (of Guardians of the Galaxy fame) play fair with that premise. Assuming that one can accept the ludicrous, Saw-esque contrivance of its scenario, The Belko Experiment unspools credibly, revealing an essentially pessimistic view of humanity.
The bloodbath unfolds in the Bogotá, Colombia branch of the Belko Corporation, an American non-profit entity that walks and talks like a for-profit business. Ostensibly, Belko is an NGO that facilitates the recruitment of foreign employees for the Latin American operations of multi-national firms. However, the company’s megalithic office building looks like a typical militarized neo-colonial enclave, complete with razor wire and a thousand-yard buffer zone separating Belko from the rest of Bogotá.
On this particular morning, the segregation is even sharper, as all of Belko's arriving Colombian employees have been turned away at the gates, allegedly due to some vaguely described “security threat.” This leaves the building half-full of Americans and other expats, who attempt to go about their daily routines as if nothing is amiss. McClean pointedly presents the office’s environment as one of dreary corporate anonymity, indistinguishable in its general rhythms and textures from any paper-pushing outfit anywhere in the world. The less familiar, more invasive aspects of life at Belko seem to be largely taken in stride, whether the bomb-sniffing dogs, the omnipresent cameras, or even the GPS tracker embedded in the neck of each non-Colombian employee. (This is due to the high risk of kidnapping posed to foreign workers, or so they are told.)
Things take a swerve for the bizarre when a voice crackles over the building’s public address system, announcing that employees must kill two of their number in the next 10 minutes, or else two people will be killed at random. The workers are mostly just perplexed, until armored barriers suddenly slam shut over the exterior windows and doors, trapping the 80 people currently in the building. Anxiety begins to ripple through the ranks, even as Barry (Tony Goldwyn), the branch’s Chief of Operations, assures everyone that their confinement must be part of some elaborate prank. When the initial 10 minutes expire, however, two individuals’ heads explode with a bang and a squelch of blood, bone, and brain. The initial, panicked assumption is that these unfortunates were slain by a sniper. However, a gooey examination reveals a more horrifying reality: The “tracker” implanted in each employee is, in fact, a remote-detonated explosive.
Its absolute authority now messily apparent, the Voice on the PA announces a new, more ruthless ultimatum: 30 of the remaining 78 Belko employees must be dead in two hours, or 60 will be killed. Thus begins the squealing meat of the film’s conflict, in which the Belko workforce divides into two rough factions. The first, loosely led by Mike (John Gallagher Jr.), is determined to find a non-violent path out of their predicament, or, at minimum, to simply refuse to play along with the Voice’s twisted game. The other group follows Barry, who initially presents himself as the voice of calm civility. As the clock ticks on, however, he evolves into a cold-blooded Darwinian executioner, resolved to eliminate the weak so that the strong can survive.
Mike is theoretically the “hero” here, or at least the victim who has the most screen time and who is the most obvious point of viewer identification. One of The Belko Experiment’s fumbles, however, is that it injudiciously divides its attention between myriad stock characters, rather than focusing on developing the inch-deep Mike into something more than a bland, anxious twerp. (Or more than the cunning Man of Action into which he inexplicably evolves in the final 30 minutes.) Before the bloodshed begins, the film quickly introduces an array of “colorful” secondary and tertiary characters, all of whom are sketched with just enough detail that they come off as lazy caricatures: the well-dressed flamboyant gay guy (David Del Rio); the rotund, wisecracking black security guard (James Earl); the sweet, older middle-aged lady (Rusty Schwimmer); the conspiracy-theory-spouting stoner (Sean Gunn); the pragmatic blue collar trouper (Michael Rooker); the twitchy, obviously unstable dude (David Dastmalchian). None of these characters are given sufficient depth for their inevitable deaths to register as affecting. The meager human component is thinly scraped over too much film, as the saying goes. Meanwhile, McLean’s sheer indifference towards these clichéd characters lends an irritating glibness to their individual demises.
Then there’s Mike’s girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). It's a mystery what could have possibly attracted her to a colorless, disheveled whiner like Mike. Certainly, the viewer doesn’t learn much about her other than the fact that she is the Girlfriend Character, which apparently means that she must naysay every plan that Mike suggests. Scratch that: There’s also the fact that she detests the harassing attentions of the leering Wendell (John C. McGinley), who, in fine red pill jackwagon fashion, apparently thinks that any woman who rebuffs him is a cockteasing bitch. (Which hardly counts as characterization for Leandra, since no woman would find Wendell’s creepy “flirting” to be charming.) It should come as exactly zero surprise that the eventual homicidal free-for-all turns into a stage for Wendell and Leandra to act on their resentment and loathing, respectively.
This kind of cut-rate, sophomoric drama is The Belko Experiment’s meat and potatoes, and it gives the whole enterprise a tiresome dimension. In terms of inter-character dynamics, almost nothing unexpected happens in the film. It’s cogent, but not penetrating or revealing, like the cinematic imitation of a half-baked reality show storyline. That said, at least Gunn’s script is lucid and McLean's direction is enjoyably lurid. That’s more than one can say of the dour, muddled conflicts trotted out in the various Purge films, which purportedly engage with similar themes, yet seem to occur in a reality where human behavior only loosely resembles that of the real world. Wendell might be a cartoonishly vile asshole, but that cartoonishness makes it crudely satisfying rather than morally troubling when his sneering mug meet the business end of a fire axe.
Narratively speaking, the walking sore thumb in The Belko Experiment is Dany (Melonie Diaz), who has the bad luck of starting her employment with Belko on the same day that the Voice unleashes their lethal game. The film generally treats her as a co-protagonist, following her on a snaking path through the building’s stairwells, sub-basements, and crawl spaces as she adheres to a canny “evade and hide” strategy. Unfortunately, Dany is even less developed than Mike—she’s practically a tabula rasa—and it’s not apparent why the viewer should give her fate any thought, beyond the fact that she is young and pretty. It’s as though Gunn and McLean realized that they had short-changed the Latina girlfriend character (in a Latin American setting, no less) and decided that the proper corrective was to awkwardly wedge another Latina into the plot.
These sorts of storytelling failures are exasperating, but fortunately not lethal to The Belko Experiment’s bedrock purpose of gruesome, nerve-wracking spectacle. The film functions effectively on the latter score, in part because Gunn’s script approaches the scenario with a kind of rational ruthlessness. The characters might be simply drawn and their conflicts might be unimaginative, but there’s still a wicked electricity in watching the employees’ mutual fear disintegrate into selfish carnage, “kind of slowly at first… and then very, very suddenly” (as Archer’s Lana Kane would say). In short, the film treats its conceit respectfully, if not its characters. The Belko workers make some dumb mistakes—they are the expendable meat in a horror movie after all—but those errors consistently resemble the blunders of panicked people in unthinkable circumstances, rather than mere clunky plot contrivances.
McLean bestows the story with an attitude of ineluctable doom, less through formal atmospherics than sheer momentum and gore. (Visually and aurally, Belko is fairly unremarkable, although the design of the “exploding head sound” is wonderfully revolting, like an M-80 firecracker detonating inside a rotten pumpkin.) Insipid characters notwithstanding, there’s a genuine and overpowering sense of danger that suffuses The Belko Experiment. The rigidly circumscribed nature of the murder game (and the opacity of its purpose) lends the film a bit of Cube’s industrial remorselessness, but the “inhumanity of humanity” angle makes it closer kin to the likes of Lifeboat, The Mist, and Green Room. Belko compromises its tone by drizzling in moments of comic absurdity and frequently snickering at its characters, but what ultimately makes the film memorable is that (mostly) searing aura of mortal peril.
Perhaps the most inspired aspect of Belko’s story is its tacit acknowledgement that the experiment is inherently unfair—not to mention biased to provoke violence. That might sound facetious, but if the Voice's game is indeed an experiment, it's one that is terribly designed. Perhaps more accurately, it's one designed to obtain a particular outcome. The parameters of the experiment railroad the subjects into just two possible paths: ruthless violence or cowering passivity. Tellingly, every time Mike pursues a “sideways” path out of the game—e.g., slicing out his tracker with a utility knife, or hanging S.O.S. banners from the roof—the Voice announces that such tactics are a violation of the (previously unmentioned) rules and that employing them will result in execution. In this way, the Voice betrays their motivation. They’re not interested in whether any of the test subjects can wriggle out of their puzzle box; they just want to see the bodies pile up. The veneer of scientific inquiry can’t conceal the Voice’s underlying barbaric impulse, any more than elegant Derby Day hats can turn animal abuse into a Sport of Kings.
Fresh off his dreadful and shockingly inept ghost story The Darkness, McLean reasserts that he can, indeed, make an engaging horror picture when he puts his mind to it. Nothing in The Belko Experiment approaches Wolf Creek—still his best feature—but occasionally McLean injects some of the latter film’s shocking, left-field violence into the former, momentarily and mutinously perturbing the otherwise conventional plot. There’s a particular late film death that occurs so suddenly and in a manner that so thoroughly sabotages the audience’s expectations, the moment elicits perverse delight rather than resentment—once the viewer’s brain has processed the uncanny shock of it, that is.
There’s also something to be said for the pure, shattering horror of a banal workplace mutating into an armed madhouse in practically no time at all, not due to the influence of demons, alien parasites, or a viral epidemic, but ordinary human savagery. It’s a bit like watching The Lord of the Flies on fast-forward, and while Belko’s social commentary is comparatively flimsy, the speed of the office’s devolution into an everyone-for-themselves gladiatorial arena is itself a source of dizzying dread. The premise has some antecedents, being something like a mashup of the prisoner’s dilemma, the trolley problem, and various “lifeboat ethic” thought experiments. While the Belko game is as nonsensical and overcooked as any Joker scheme or Jigsaw death trap, Gunn wisely refrains from drawing profound meaning from such Philosophy 101 contrivances. Near the film’s conclusion, it is revealed that Belko is not testing any grand hypothesis, but merely gathering data as a part of a wide-ranging investigation, which it hopes will someday result in advancements in the social sciences. (If there’s a successful satirical element to be found in Belko, it’s in the film’s mild mockery of the methods and culture of modern scientific research.) Shrewdly, the film turns one of its weaknesses—its relative political toothlessness—into a broader, Coen-esque illustration of meaninglessness and Sisyphean folly.
And, in truth, while Belko lacks the scathing, whip-smart integration of racial, sexual, and economic anxieties that one can observe in horror features like Compliance and Get Out, it still manages flashes of resonance with respect to the corporatization of American life. When Barry, pistol tucked ominously into his waistband, begins coolly dividing up the employees into the valuable and the worthless, one can detect echoes of a dictator’s liquidation of “unproductive” citizens, but also the cost-benefit analyses and actuarial tables of the business world. Much like the capitalist judgments driven by such dollar-based evaluations, Barry’s pitiless culling of his co-workers is presented with a fig leaf of “hard choices." However, no one seems to notice that their boss doesn’t have to justify his survival at all. His value is assumed.