The Belko Experiment (dir. Greg McLean)

Posted: March 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

“The Belko Experiment” is a fun movie, and my saying that basically tells you all you need to know about it. The film is very derivative, with similarities to dozens of films, of which I’ll list a few: “Battle Royale”, “Exam”, “Cube”, “The Running Man”, “The Hunger Games”. In the film, an American company called Belko is operating a branch in Columbia. One day the branch has extra security and sends any native employees home for the day, leaving only 90 or so American expatriates. Soon, the building goes into lock down, with a weird indestructible metal blockading every exit and window, and a voice on an intercom starts telling the people to kill a certain number of the employees or risk an even larger number of employees being killed by the magic voice (the employees, we learn, have explosive devices in their heads). So, we have the moral dilemma of whether killing a smaller number of innocent people in order to save a larger number of innocent people is justifiable.

Now this is an interesting premise for a film. You could attack this from the morality versus pragmatism angle. I’m reminded of the forgotten Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman film “Extreme Measures” where a doctor kidnaps and experiments on homeless people to find a cure for cancer. The key line of that film is “If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn’t you have to do that?” I’m also reminded of Ozymandias from “Watchmen”, who saves the world from complete annihilation by killing millions of people and staging that holocaust as being caused by something else (a giant alien squid in the comic, and a near-omnipotent god-man in the film). “The Belko Experiment” is a movie that will remind you of a lot of other movies.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t really interested in philosophical issues about morality. Despite the corporate setting, it’s not even entirely interested in the easy target of how corporations slowly murder their employees through mundane work, bureaucracy, and the horrors of Capitalism in real life. Hell, we don’t even get many “Office Space” or “The Office”-worthy jabs at corporate life, save for an elevator muzak gag and a spattering of other passing jokes. Odd, since writer James Gunn was once married to Jenna Fischer, who played Pam on “The Office”. You’d think this film, originally written sometime before they divorced, would have been Gunn’s Troma-and-horror-background spin on his then-wife’s successful sitcom.

No, Gunn is mainly interested in making an often funny and sometimes gory but always fun B movie. No more and no less, even if his concept could have been the blueprint for a much better film. Perhaps it was Gunn’s sensibilities, forged by making horror comedies like “Tromeo and Juliet”, “Slither”, and “Super” (or, to a lesser extent, the “Scooby Doo” live action films) that he just wants to make gory comedies of the type that teenagers back in the 90s would blind rent from the video store or catch one late night on HBO when their friends were over. Whatever the case is, “The Belko Experiment” is the film it is, and not some phantom better film I can imagine in my mind. For a director, we have Greg McLean, who made the stone-serious and nihilistic “Wolf Creek” (loved by many horror fans, but I was indifferent towards it). I have not seen any of McLean’s other films, but he wouldn’t have occurred to me as the first choice to direct this film. In fairness, he lands all of the comedic beats and he knows how to stage violence effectively, but he seems to do no more and no less than direct Gunn’s script.

“Belko” has some superficial similarities to Gunn’s “Dawn of the Dead” reimagining, which was directed by Zack Snyder back when Snyder was still capable of making a good film. Both films are about groups of people trapped in a dangerous scenario as tensions rise and certain characters show their true colors under the pressure. Snyder brought his own visual flair to that film, whereas McLean doesn’t seem to have a stamp to put on this film, making me view it as more of Gunn’s work than anything else. If Gunn wasn’t busy directed the super-popular “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, he probably would have directed this film himself, and it might leaned ever further toward comedy and absurdism. My guess is that the film didn’t end up as the serious exploration of morality and social criticism that it could have been because Gunn is too silly, and it didn’t end up as “The Office” with gore because McLean is too serious, so we get something that doesn’t lean toward either pole, where greatness lay, and instead we get a film that is, I must reiterate, very fun, but feels like a missed opportunity.

Aside from this feeling that the film is a half-measure, and an ending that undercuts any moral intrigue by leading us to conclude that nearly everyone was going to be required to die regardless of the moral decisions made by the trapped employees, my biggest issue with the film is that the characters who end up becoming our villains become villainous very quickly, and don’t necessarily struggle with that decision. This makes sense for some characters, like John C. McGinley’s Wendell, who seems like a skeevy asshole the moment we meet him, but for a character like Barry, played by Tony Goldwyn, it seems like he probably should have struggled more before turning into a dictator-like villain when his character starts out as an amiable but typical corporate executive. McGinley, by the way, had a role in “Office Space” and showed his comedic chops in the hospital workplace comedy “Scrubs”, showing that he would have been capable of playing his role more comedically if asked. Goldwyn, who tends to emanate evilness in an everyday package in films like “Ghost” and TV shows like “Dexter”, probably would have had a harder time in a goofier film, but would have shined more in the more pitch black, morality-minded version of this film.

The cast in this film is actually pretty top notch, from protagonist John Gallager Jr to bit players like David Dastmalchian and Michael Rooker (whom Gunn has worked with in “Slither” and “Guardians”). With the exception of maybe Sean Gunn, playing a pot smoking cafeteria worker who wears a “Viva la Revolution” t-shirt for the second half of the film, most of the cast plays this material straight, which helps the film in serious moments, such as a scene where our antagonists stage execution style killings in order to meet the deadline imposed by the intercom voice. I’d say that a good 70% of the film is played seriously, and there are good scenes of tension and a handful of scenes that engage in the morality versus pragmatism aspects of the story, though I wish there was more of that.

At the end of the day, I really did enjoy “The Belko Experiment”. It’s not the film I would have wanted it to be, but as it currently exists in this form it is a delightfully fun, well acted B-movie that we don’t really see any more, either because studios don’t make them or because they wind up on Video OnDemand and get lost in the shuffle of new product. This film would have had a good life as a blind rental in the Cult section of my video store when I was a teen. I miss films like this, and was happy to have seen one done this well. If anything, my insistence that this film could have been even better is a compliment to all parties involved, as I recognize that the premise and the talent bringing it to the screen are not just competent, but skillful enough to have done that. B

P.S.: This is the first film in years that I have seen to have the old Orion logo in front of it. The wave of nostalgia that brought back alone made me grin from ear to ear.


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