What would you do if you were trapped and told to kill or be killed? Would your survival instinct overcome your humanity? Would you hide out the ordeal? How about kill someone in self-defense? Is there such a thing as the greater good, when your life is on the line? And would you sacrifice your life, because the chances of you dying are greater than your chance of surviving? These are just a few of the moral questions explored in The Belko Experiment.
[The Belko Experiment. Dir. Greg McLean. Perf. John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley (shown), Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Michael Rooker. BH Tilt, Blumhouse Productions, Itaca Films, 2016. Film.]
Story (2/5) – The Belko Experiment is written by James Gunn. Many of you know him as the writer of films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Slither, Scooby-Doo, Super, and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead. And I have to admit, I’m a fan of Lollipop Chainsaw, which Gunn played a big part in as well.
This film follows a group of Belko employees trapped inside an office somewhere in Columbia. After being introduced to a few of the main characters, we find the employees greeted by a mysterious voice over the intercom telling them that they must kill any two of their fellow employees or suffer a consequence. At first, the people are confused and try to exit the building instead. This causes their captors to lock the building down with heavy metal plates. After time expires on the first test, four employees are suddenly killed. Their heads pop open as a small device in their head is exploded. The remaining people are then told that 30 people are to die next or 60 employees will be murdered by their captors. This creates a life or death struggle between different factions of the company. Meanwhile, these factions’ actions are monitored as part of a social test or experiment.
Several people have compared The Belko Experiment to Japan’s Battle Royale. Granted, we find people pitted against each other to the death. And yes, there is an explosive device which keeps the participants in line. But the mostly unarmed participants of the Belko Experiment are far less prepared for combating each other than the students in Battle Royale, who were given survival packs. Additionally, the government in Battle Royale acknowledges the existence of this program. Belko’s participants were kept in the dark instead. Is it the government? Is it the company? Ultimately, when we learn more about what is going on, it isn’t for the same reasons as Battle Royale establishes.
The biggest difference between the movies though is that Battle Royale focused on individuals and The Belko Experiment appeared to be primarily about groups. We see this when groups of people have to be killed in order for groups of people to survive in Belko. Additionally, Belko’s test area is defined at the beginning of the project and doesn’t changed throughout the experiment. Battle Royale’s battlefield meanwhile shrank, focusing us on a notion of a singularity (or oneness). Royale also has a kill mandate forcing individuals to kill once a day, whereas in Belko, you didn’t necessarily have to kill to survive, because the group’s activity was factored in.
[Huge spoiler ahead]
But the largest example of the film being group focused comes from the ending when we find Mike isn’t the sole survivor of The Belko Experiment, just one of many in their experiments.
Character (3/5) – I recognized many of the actors in this film including John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John c. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Brent Sexton, and Michael Rooker.
John Gallagher, Jr. plays Michael Milch. Mike is a middle manager type. He ends up leading the faction of employees hoping to find a solution without having to follow their captors’ demands. His ideas require teamwork and seem to stem from rationality rather than passion or fear. That said, Mike was the employee initially suspicious of the activities at Belko, having seen employees sent home earlier and the strange activity around a nearby hanger. Many times in the film, Milch was tested on his beliefs (both by his captors and by his fellow employees). As a result, he was probably most affected by the events of the film.
On the other side, we have Barry Norris, played by Tony Goldwyn. Goldwyn handles his role magnificently. Through his portrayal of the character, you grow to hate the choices he makes, but sympathize with the need to make them. Barry is the guy that sees what needs to be done, and does it. Duty drives his decisions, not compassion. His thoughts are very much influenced by his fears and his sense of responsibility toward his family. And unlike Mike, his team is ruled more authoritatively and less cooperatively.
Adria Arjona plays Leandra, Michael’s girlfriend. Her character represents the middle perspective between Mike and Barry. I felt that Leandra was an underutilized character though, and probably would have been better off merged in with other characters in the film. That is assuming that the main characters are not meant to be metaphors, which I will discuss later in this review.
One of the other notable characters is Wendell Duke, played well by John C. McGinley. He is a perverted psycho and a reason why offices have sexual harassment courses. He’s the bad guy without redeeming qualities, which is needed when you are somewhat meant to sympathize with the main baddie (in this case Barry).
Another outstanding character is the security guard Evan, played by James Earl. I especially loved how he honestly did his job as he was supposed to, and did not offer up the armory key when he was told.
There are so many characters in this film to look at, including the nerdy Keith (played by Josh Brener), the stoner Marty (played by Sean Gunn), Vince (played by Brent Sexton). There is also the new hire Dany Wilkins (played by Melonie Diaz), Mike’s friend Terry Winter (played by Owain Yeomen), and the maintenance staff Bud and Lonny (played by Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian respectively).
Oh, I can’t forget Gregg Henry who plays The Voice. He’s the mysterious guy that sets everyone off (literally). With so little time in the film and so many characters to explore, this is one of those films where characters will be remembered not from their acting scenes, but by their deaths.
Execution (2/5) – The film is directed by Greg McLean. McLean is known for films like Wolf Creek and 2016’s The Darkness.
The death scene special effects were handled well with quite a few splatter moments for those of you who enjoy them. We have heads being caved in, exploded, and even stuck with an ax.
Execution-wise, the film does what it needs to do. Nothing distracts you from the story or characters, but nothing stands out as well.
Nuance (2/5) – For me, the Mike and Barry conflict seemed to be a metaphor for political stereotypes. On one side, you have this compassionate individual looking to save everyone. And on the other, you have this individual driven by his fear and sense of duty to do what needs to be done.
Mike is the side that wants everyone to work together. He’s the one that feels that the less fortunate need someone to protect them and give them a voice. Meanwhile, you have Barry, who is the guy that steps up only after catastrophe hits. In the beginning, he only gives a speech to calm the employees, but after lives are lost though, he stepped up and took control, making the decisions which he thought would save more lives in the long run.
So I guess Leandra must represent the people of the nation then, because she sees both sides of the Mike and Barry’s argument. And she seems to want Mike or Barry make the decisions for her, even though she herself could do something more to improve their situation.
If politics are not your thing though, then you might see the film as a look into corporate decision making. I’ve been in companies that have been ruled both extremely authoritatively and extremely cooperatively. As this movie showed, there are good and bad sides to both methods.
And there is also the question of whether or not someone can be pushed to change what they believe if the circumstances were great enough. This film certainly gives its answer to this.
Ultimately though, I felt that some of the deaths were pointless. Maybe that’s the message (that death is pointless). But tonally, it felt off for me. I much rather liked the tone at the beginning of the film where they played a Spanish version of “I Will Survive” as we are first introduced to the Belko building. I was honestly expected (and wanted) more of that tone for the remainder of the film.
Entertainment (2/5) – The Belko Experiment was certainly a thrilling film to watch though. Gore fans will like the few scenes that were offered. Unfortunately, I thought this film would have been more entertaining with a few tweaks–like spending more time with the other characters and having a more progressive plot buildup.
Overall, I give The Belko Experiment a 2.2 bow-ties out of 5. It’s a film that is worth seeing once if you enjoy thrillers, and if you’re burned out on Beauty and Beast which releases this week as well.