Directed by: Greg McLean
Premise: Eighty people are locked in a high-rise office building. A mysterious voice on the intercom instructs the employees to kill half of their coworkers in two hours or all of them will die.
What Works: The Belko Experiment benefits from a very good cast. The movie is full of character actors like John C. McGinley, John Gallagher Jr., Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, and Tony Goldwyn. These are all good performers but they are rarely seen in lead roles. That suits The Belko Experiment which doesn’t really have a lead protagonist or antagonist. Some characters move the plot along more than others but The Belko Experiment is similar to 12 Angry Men and Network in that it is the story of an organization and the way these people function as a group. Because it does not feature many recognizable lead players and since the screenplay avoids identifying a singular lead character, The Belko Experiment keeps us guessing and creates a sense of peril for everyone involved. As a mix of the action and horror genres, The Belko Experiment succeeds in keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. The turns in the action are consistently surprising and the film does not shy away from being brutal. But the violence is offset by the movie’s intelligence. The Belko Experiment was written by James Gunn who is best known for helming Guardians of the Galaxy. But before that, Gunn wrote and directed movies like Super and Slither and The Belko Experiment is consistent with his earlier films. The movie is relatively smart and its characters behave in a mostly logical manner. When the building is first locked down, the employees responses are believable and intelligent. That gives this unlikely scenario some credibility. The movie also dramatizes a compelling philosophical question—whether the ends justify the means—and that gives the movie some added intellectual weight as the characters debate among themselves.
What Doesn’t: The concept of The Belko Experiment is not new. This premise has been seen before in movies like The Experiment and Battle Royale. The real life inspiration for most of these films is the 1971 Stanford prison experiment which was dramatized in a 2015 movie and the literary precedent for all of these stories is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which was made into a gritty drama in 1963. Any one of these examples is a more interesting film than The Belko Experiment. There is no question as to whether the circumstances will get violent. It’s just a matter of time before they do. The problem is that in successful examples of this kind of movie, the audience should dread the violence and wish for an intervention that will stop it. That’s not true of this film. The Belko Experiment was directed by Greg McLean, who also helmed movies like Wolf Creek, and his approach to the material neutralizes the more colorful aspects of Gunn’s screenplay. McLean seems eager to get to the violence which is usually staged in ways that are more reminiscent of an action film than a horror picture. The missed opportunity of The Belko Experiment is its failure to take advantage of the office setting. The film is poised to be a violent version of Office Space and while there are some minor references to the work environment the movie doesn’t satirize or otherwise use the facets of office life. And that’s the most serious problem with The Belko Experiment. It repurposes a scenario that’s been done before and sets it in a new environment without putting the location to any use. The movie just doesn’t have anything to say about humanity and violence beyond the obvious. There’s no ignoring that other movies have done the same thing and done it better.
Bottom Line: The Belko Experiment doesn’t do much new or interesting with a familiar premise. The film succeeds as a mix of horror and action but it isn’t as subversive or as interesting as it could be.
Episode: #640 (March 26, 2017)