THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (15)
Director: Greg McLean
Screenplay: James Gunn
Review: RJ Bland
Imagine 'The Office' and errr... kind of fuse that with ...'Battle Royale'.
That must have been James Gunn's pitch when attempting to get The Belko Experiment off the ground. A bunch of people imprisoned in their office are forced to kill or be killed. It does sound pretty cool actually – and Blumhouse and director Greg McLean obviously thought so too. Best known for his expansive outback horror franchise Wolf Creek – about a serial killer running amok and offing tourists, Belko sees him contain his story within a more confined setting, and the results are pretty bloody. It's worth mentioning (and commending) the 18 certificate rating that the film carries. To be honest, there isn't too much more than you'd expect in your run-of-the-mill 15 rated gore fest – however that's not the point. The industry has a tendency to sanitise and water down films such as this. And in an age where 12A's and 15's rule the school, it's pretty refreshing to get a film that isn't afraid to rein itself in for the sake of a few extra bucks.
The set up is quite simple. The employees of a Bogota-based US company (Belko Industries) are slightly unnerved when they arrive at work one morning only to find increased security as they arrive. The fact that all the Colombian workers have all been sent home is also slightly weird – as is the fact that the building is located in the middle of nowhere to be quite honest. The office block soon goes into lock-down mode, with the windows and all exits being encased in thick metal. Panic ensues – but it's not until the voice on the PA system announces itself that things get really messed up. 'There are currently 80 of you in the building, in a few hours most of you will be dead.' Some think it is a prank, some kind of sick joke. But others take the threat a bit more seriously and it doesn't take too long before we – and they – realise that this isn't some extreme episode of Punkd. As the first round of head explosions begin, the employees think there is a shooter in the building. However it turns out that the 'tracking chips' that Belko had implanted in its workforces heads that were supposedly for 'security reasons' – are actually now being detonated like bombs.
The first 45 minutes are really quite excellent. McLean gradually ramps up the sense of unease and Gunn's script allows us to explore the plethora of characters on show. You'd think that a story with so many characters would be difficult to manage from a writing perspective. However Gunn handles it pretty well. During the first ten minutes, we are introduced to a host of characters – always a difficult thing to do. But their introductions are short, sharp and often pretty amusing. 'Normal people do not work at Belko,' warns office extrovert Roberto. Sure they're an oddball collection and a little bit stereotyped, but they don't feel completely two-dimensional and what's more, most of them feel a little bit like people you actually know. People that you've actually worked with. It makes what follows seem a little bit more real and relatable. Although the cast itself does not include any A-listers as such, there are some solid central performances from Adria Arjona, John Gallagher Jr and a brilliantly over-the-top turn from John C. McGinley as the office nutjob. However Tony Goldwyn steals the show as the slick boss who happens to be pretty handy with a gun too. Also, seriously, how is he 56 years old? Crazy.
As with most genre movies, most of the fun is in the speculation. Who has sealed the building up and why? Are they really planning to kill people? The moral and philosophical debates and discussions amongst the characters about their predicament are undoubtedly going on inside the mind of the viewer. To begin with, none of the office workers want to entertain the idea that the threats are real and the idea of killing someone else to save your own life is viewed as absurd. However when reality hits, not everyone still stands by that viewpoint. It's in this first half of the film that it challenges us to put ourselves in their situation and to answer the same questions that it poses. How far would you go to save yourself? When is murder (if ever) acceptable?
However the longer the film goes on, the more apparent it becomes that beyond the intriguing social experiment aspect and pithy dialogue, there isn't too much else – apart from a lot of heads being blown up or shot or caved in with various office stationery.
The satyr is replaced with violence and gore. It's not that it doesn't make for entertaining viewing (because it does) – it's just that we were expecting (and hoping) for something a little more. Sure, it attempts to justify its philosophical themes at the end with some exposition but to tell you the truth, we'd rather they'd have just left it as a big question mark. The why was never really the most important part of the story. Watching how people react to the situation was always going to provide the entertainment and intellectual stimulus.
That said there is still a lot of fun to be had here. Gunn's mercurial script makes it a rather unpredictable movie going experience at times, as the characters ever changing perspectives and moral codes make for some neat twists and turns. It also delivers on its promise of violence and bloodshed. It may not be as brutal as films such as Battle Royale and a lot of the killings happen in scenes of mayhem or semi darkness where it is difficult to discern what exactly is going on – but nevertheless, gorehounds will still be satisfied. Add to that a talented cast and a smart script and you end up with a compelling and fun 90 minutes.