As The Belko Experiment opens we hear a Spanish language version of a pop song and, after a moment, we realise it’s I Will Survive. It’s the on-the-nose punchline to a joke that we don’t fully get at that point and a hint of what a dark, mischievous film lies ahead.
I think The Belko Experiment is an excellent film. I don’t know that you’ll agree with me.
It’s a film that’s an odd shape. It’s twisted and warped, and it crawls into your head looking to slither through some of the more hard-to-reach and unpleasant nooks in your brain. And if your brain isn’t twisted or misshapen just so, I’m not sure that you’ll find the experience particularly pleasant. If your brain is gnarled in that way, though, The Belko Experiment is an exciting and energising experience.
The set-up is simple enough. The workers of the Belko company are locked in their building and ordered to complete violent tasks. It’s Lord Of The Flies meets The Purge. A sort of office block apocalypse, The End Is Nigh Hard.
That’s a brief set-up of the story, mirroring how it happens in the film. Writer James Gunn’s script is commendably taut and the film spends just 15 minutes of the hour and a half the film runs for introducing the characters and the surroundings before jumping into the action. In such a short time Gunn and director Greg McLean are able to establish a number of interesting characters and their dynamics with one another, both social and professional. That’s great, because we find out who they are and then we get to work out how they’re going to respond. It’s sure-handed economic filmmaking.
Within that lies an explanation to at least some of the success of The Belko Experiment. It drops a load of interesting characters into an interesting situation and then it asks questions of them. It’s a rough ‘n’ tumble interrogation of the characters and the concept.
Where it really sets itself apart, though, and this will perhaps best inform you if the film is for you, is in how bleak and nasty it’s willing to get. The Belko Experiment is merciless and all the better for it. It’s a particularly effective black comedy, as the script toys with, torments and challenges its characters.
Of those characters, the stand out is John C McGinley’s Wendell Dukes. He’s intimidating, unnerving and, disturbingly, recognisable as a real person. You’ll have seen someone like this character in real life, probably on an office training exercise. McGinley’s performance is perfectly pitched and stands out amongst a series of brilliant performances (including a wonderfully bizarre turn from Sean Gunn). When things are starting to turn, there he is with his arms crossed, tightly wound and looking for justification to do something awful.
The Belko Experiment ties in nicely with another of James Gunn’s films: Super. Where that film was full of heart, this one is more occupied with corporate culture, the dark side of human nature and satirising modern society. But they’re both densely packed yet don’t feel rigid or over stuffed. Both are teeming with fragility and humanity. Most significantly though, both films are built around the theme of morality.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for director Greg McLean, in a way. In an industry where writers are frequently overlooked while praise is heaped upon directors, the name most closely associated with The Belko Experiment is that of writer James Gunn. McLean, though, is due much credit. The film is unflinching, gruesome and playful. There is so much going on; not just activity, but it’s a film rich in character and subtext. You could pick The Belko Experiment apart for days. It makes you ask questions that don’t have comfortable answers. It’s tremendously put together and is visually inventive, too. It also escalates brilliantly, as it approaches its conclusion and becomes more violent and chaotic (and at times it is jaw-droppingly violent).
The Belko Experiment is a brave film. It creates an unflattering and believable portrait of humanity, and what happens to people under pressure. It’s the perfect 80s throwback movie, in that it isn’t instantly recognisable as one. It has the spirit of an 80s film. Invention, dark humour, characters, satire, violence and it’s high concept.
A lovely repulsive little film, The Belko Experiment is an instant cult classic, sure to alienate mainstream movie goers while delighting genre enthusiasts and weirdos from every odd pocket of pop culture.
The Belko Experiment is in UK cinemas from April 15th.