PLOT: Employees for an American corporation located in Columbia find themselves trapped by unseen forces who tell them a large number of their co-workers must be dead within a certain timeframe... or else they all die.
REVIEW: As a writer and personality, James Gunn is recognized for his energetically weird and frequently morbid sense of humor. While most of the world knows him for his supremely lovable GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, genre fans are familiar with his more eccentric scripts: SLITHER, DAWN OF THE DEAD, SUPER, his freakish contributions to the Troma canon... So it's fairly surprising to find THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, which he wrote several years ago and was just now made into a movie helmed by Greg McLean, is largely devoid of Gunn's trademark wit and sense of fun. In fact, it's an unrelentingly bleak and nasty picture, with nary a place to find a bit of relief. In terms of a vehicle depicting the worst mankind is capable of, it chugs along with frank determination and delivers some cheap thrills. In terms of a "good time," it falls short.
Almost the entirety of the action takes place in an Orwellian corporate building in South America. Belko Industries is the kind of business where even the employees barely know what their job is, but they all sit in cubicles and unadorned offices and chat on the phone all day with fake smiles on their faces. We meet a few of the stand-out personalities: Mike (John Gallagher, Jr.) is a likable everyman who romances fiery Leandra (Adria Arjona). Wendell (John C. McGinley) is the office creep. Barry (Tony Goldwyn) is the bland office manager. Marty (Sean Gunn) is a stoner. Dany (Melonie Diaz) is the timid new girl. Etc.
We don't get to spend much time with these folks, so their personalities before the shit hits the fan aren't well-established. But BELKO is ready to swiftly move on to its main objective: an unfamiliar voice comes over the intercom during this otherwise unexciting day and announces that the employees of Belko must begin killing each other, pronto. If they don't comply, their new puppet-masters will do it for them. At first this seems like a joke, but when steel walls begin covering walls and people's heads start bursting, the threat becomes pretty real, pretty quickly. Cooler heads prevail for only so long, and fruitless attempts to signal the outside world (they're quite literally in the middle of nowhere) give way to a subset of the office trying to figure out who's going to go first. Before you can say "Battle Royale meets Lord of the Flies," half of the people have gone mad, while the other half cowers and attempts to figure out what the hell to do.
In terms of its central idea, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT doesn't have anything new to say. The old "civilized people turning into savages" scenario is pretty familiar by now, and Gunn and McLean don't add any satire or insight to the depressing (and probably realistic) notion. What's on THE BELKO EXPERIMENT's mind is brutality, and the creators seem to take grim pleasure in watching their protagonists fall apart, shrieking and cursing and covered in blood. The cast is certainly game, as everyone looks appropriately terrified and traumatized throughout. Goldwyn and McGinley stand out as the leaders of the "pragmatic" contingent who think it's best they go along with the rules and start killing, while Gallagher, Jr. is perfectly acceptable as the increasingly-frazzled hero desperately trying to maintain peace.
But where a movie like BATTLE ROYALE mined a similar idea for sick shocks and entertainingly apocalyptic action sequences, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is frustratingly one-note. My main complaint with the film is that it isn't more imaginative. Considering Gunn's enjoyable track record, I expected a different kind of energy from this tale. Naturally, Gunn can write whatever he wants; I'm not here to tell him it should have been funnier or less grim. I just think it's interesting that his script doesn't find any biting humor in a scenario that is clearly asking for it. In fact, things might have been more disturbing if Gunn and McLean had inserted some gallows humor into the mayhem. Instead, the movie is strictly straightforward in its approach to the ugly situation the characters find themselves in. To be fair, some humor is present, but it often falls flat.
It might be accurate to say McLean's personality shines through more than Gunn's. McLean's WOLF CREEK films are harshly efficient and cold experiences. They're well-made enough, but thoroughly unpleasant. BELKO has that same disposition: dour and unsparing. Horror fans who don't require a little levity in their films should be well-satisfied. Shootings and stabbings and skull-bashings abound, with a handful of exploding heads on tap for good measure. In terms of violence, BELKO is short on inventiveness but hardly shies away from copious bloodshed. (I won't lie, I thought Gunn would have crafted a few more creative deaths here.)
It sounds like I dislike the movie a lot. I don't, necessarily, but it's also not a film I think about fondly. For a quick and relentless thriller, with no frills attached, BELKO works. There is considerable tension built during several sequences, as characters square off against one another, guns or blunt instruments at the ready; you're always waiting to see who is going to blink first. A distressing sequence sees one faction of the workers systematically execute a large number of helpless others, which is creepy and off-putting. It feels like heads keep erupting, with the red stuff consistently splashing against walls and horrified on-lookers; the undemanding gorehound in me will always appreciate a good exploding head. There are a handful of surprising moments, as when characters begin to betray - or worse, pulverize - one another, but the movie is at its bleakest best when it's making us wonder who exactly will be killed, and by whom.
The film's conclusion is a letdown for reasons I won't go into, other than to say it shows us a character getting away with something that makes little sense when weighed against everything that has just happened. A door left open for a sequel seems to promise more of the same, but BELKO would have been better served had it tied up a few maddening loose ends here and now. The idea of enduring another BELKO EXPERIMENT isn't exactly a tantalizing one; it sounds like going to work as opposed to having some fun.