It’s practically an old proverb that corporate America is a cutthroat world wherein only the most morally malleable can rise to the top. So in hindsight, it’s almost astonishing that it took this long for something like The Belko Experiment to be willed into existence: a movie in which a company descends into a bloodbath, and where the allegorical implications are as thick as the body count of fired employees. And wouldn’t you just know it? One of the best killers is of course the all-American CEO.
Thus Belko is an amusing construction of style, gags, and horror that despite only being written by James Gunn has his darkly comic fingerprints all over it. And who knows, if he might’ve directed it too, it could have sliced with the same piano wire-sharp edge of Slither and Super. As it is, though, director Greg McLean’s sensibilities are a bit too genre and crudely gory to fully keep the film’s satirical aspirations above its B-trappings. But it’s still a hell of an entertaining day at the office for audiences with the most pitch black (and nihilistic) of tastes.
The film begins on a morning like any other for Belko, a multinational company that’s headquartered in Bogotá, Columbia. For here is a highly secure and successful business that’s ostensibly about relocating other fellow American white collar types to South American businesses, albeit it’s all a bit vague, even to its employees, what they’re really doing here. The important thing is that they’re doing it so well that each one of them is implanted with a tracer in their neck, just in case of kidnappings.
Obviously, this is all a sham and faster than you can say Battle Royale, the Columbian nationals are sent home and the doors and windows are locked. The 80 remaining American and foreign employees are given a choice: first kill two of their co-workers or four of them will die. As it turns out, those tracers also come with explosive detonators (and if you try to remove your own, they’ll blow). And like any kind of social experiment, the whole point is escalation. Next, 30 employees will have to die or 60 of them will go boom.
With a cast this large, the film mostly deals in broad stereotypes: there’s the office pervert named Wendell (John C. McGinley) who takes to this game like a fish to water; there’s the goofy nerd (Josh Brener) who’s obviously not going to make it and the annoying stoner (Sean Gunn) who thinks this is all a con. But the most important characters really boil down to three folks—Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), the quintessential good guy with a bleeding, millennial heart and who is adamant that all life is sacred and they should refuse this game; his not-so-secret office girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona), who knows enough about life to distrust her lover’s insistence that people are naturally good; and CEO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), a nice family man who cares about his employees… even as he hunts them down.
The Belko Experiment plays out like the most cynical reading possible of one of the Heath Ledger’s famous “games” from The Dark Knight. An authoritarian voice over an intercom announces that 80 co-workers and ostensible friends must pick and choose amongst themselves who lives and who dies, whether to fight or hide. The ensuing mayhem is decidedly grim and excessively violent. In other words, the film leans closer to Gunn’s early work pre-Guardians of the Galaxy.
The emphasis on satirical and mostly dry humor is what causes the film to work so well for its first two-thirds. The picture divides its characters in broad stereotypes with flamboyant gay men, sweet HR ladies, and even constant James Gunn staple Michael Rooker appearing as a Michael Rooker kind of dude. And the picture gets away with most of it due to the enormity of its cast, and the gleefully shrewd build-up of the “prank’s” implications slowly dawning on these people. Their entire careers have been comparable to pig troughs at a Chicago stockyard. Now it’s conveyer belt time.
The film also mines humor from depicting the futility of heroism and cowardice in equal measure. The most satisfying of these turns is Goldwyn’s performance as Norris, a sweet paternal CEO who acts like everyone’s loving stepdad. But the moment he sees the first several bombs go off, he quietly amasses the other office alpha males to his side and starts making plans. They’re going to confiscate security’s armory of weapons for “safe-keeping.” And then they’re going to gather everyone in the lobby to have a “talk.”
The banality of evil, and even the disquieting implications of it being for the greater good to select 30 of the “fairer” targets in favor of the remaining majority, is a loaded question of utilitarian cynicism that the movie flirts with confronting. But the picture is also a bit too flippant and sarcastic to do those kind of bleak clouds any kind of justice.
Also unfortunately, the third act completely loses its thread. The movie obviously strives for the kind of shocking but thrilling violence of the Japanese cult classic Battle Royale—the pre-Hunger Games movie about a high school class being forced to fight to the death. But McLean’s presentation of the carnage and storytelling is neither as grotesquely thought-provoking as that film or as light and humorous as Gunn’s early films. The result is something mostly just bloody and tone-deaf, with all the characters resorting to good and evil stereotypes. The sequel tease is especially tacky.
Still, there is something malevolently humorous about a movie where office dynamics take on a Darwinian bent. Additionally, the dialogue and set-ups are just playfully cruel enough to elicit a smile from the right kind of audience. This will likely be a freshman dorm room favorite for years to come. It’ll just take a while for them to realize that the the grays it invites you to wallow in are as shallow as a shadow pooling on the floor.
The Belko Experiment is in theaters on March 17.