A film review by Craig J. Koban July 7, 2017

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT j

2017, R, 88 mins.

 

John Gallagher Jr. as Mike Milch  /  Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris  /  Adria Arjona as Leandra Flores  /  John C. McGinley as Wendell Dukes  /  Melonie Diaz as Dany Wilkins  /  Josh Brener as Keith McLure  /  Michael Rooker as Bud Melks  /  Sean Gunn as Marty Espenscheid  /  Mikaela Hoover as Raziya Memarian  /  David Del Rio as Roberto Jerez  /  David Dastmalchian as Alonso 'Lonny' Crane

Directed by Greg Mclean  /  Written by James Gunn

I have no idea what kind of film THE BELKO EXPERIMENT was trying to be, which ultimately made for an endlessly frustrating viewing experience for me.  

It contains a premise that, on paper, is wondrously ripe for potential as a cutting edge satire on workplace office culture, but instead the film monotonously and nauseatingly becomes an gory orgy of sadistic violence.  That's a crying shame, because the writer and producer here is James Gunn, whom previously wrote and directed my favorite of the MCU films in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, so there's ample creative talent behind the scenes here to create a sly commentary piece with a sarcastic edge.  Unfortunately, this Greg McLean directed horror thriller celebrates the violent savagery that its desperately trying to critique, which makes it an extremely empty minded production for all involved. 

For has horrendously undercooked as THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is, the film nevertheless has, as mentioned, a legitimately enthralling hook.  We are quickly introduced to what appears to be a normal day at a normal office for a normal group of office workers and managers in a suburban Bogota building.  The straight laced and by-the-book Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) is having a fling with his office crush Leandra (Adria Arjona), one that they both have a very tough time hiding from everybody, including their boss, Barry (Tony Goldwyn), the COO of Belko Industries.  We learn a few interesting tidbits about this company early on, like, for example, how every employee has a GPS device implanted in the back of their heads so that they can be easily tracked in the event of a kidnapping (a crime that's apparently common in Columbia). 

 

 

The seemingly ordinary day at the office turns ghastly awfully fast when, out of relatively nowhere, a voice comes in over the PA system with a nightmarish ultimatum after the entire building has had every exit locked and metal plates barricaded over every window: the workers are to murder two collegues within a specific time frame...or else more will be killed at random.  Predictably, some begin to incessantly panic, whereas others believe that they are the victims of an extremely cruel office prank.  Unfortunately, when the prescribed time expires and no one acts on the warning, four employees are horrifically killed when their heads explode.  Some of the employees think the deaths were the result of sniper fire, but when overwhelming evidence reveals that it's the trackers in those poor souls' heads that have been remote detonated it causes mass chaos.  The situation turns ever worse when the same depraved voice returns on the intercom to relay that if thirty more employees are not killed within two hours then sixty will be killed instead.  

Worst.  Day.  Ever.   

Realizing that options appear alarmingly slim, Barry decides to take charge with his slimeball number two (John C. McGinley) and gathers a group of workers to attempt to break into the company armory, steal the weapons, and then commence with facilitating the orders of the mysterious voice.  They do succeed and manage to murder a few of their colleagues, but Mike and Leandra manage to flee and form their own little group of resistance workers that want to have no part in Barry's sadistic plan to ruthlessly end the lives of thirty people.  Disastrously for all, it appears that Barry and his faction have gone full-on bonkers in their obsessive desires to placate their captor's demands, whereas Mike and his partners try as they can to elude capture and execution while trying to find a way out of the building before it's all too late.   

The core concept at the heart of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT has, as mentioned, so much unbridled promise, especially for how it could have evolved into a vicious black comedy about backstabbing office politics and the lengths that some will go to in order to appease higher authorities.  In many respects, the film's powder keg of a premise really could have explored how kind hearted and congenial employees can be driven to hellish acts of barbaric violence against each other in pressurized circumstances.  Like a weird cocktail of OFFICE SPACE meets THE HUNGER GAMES, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT should be a seditious delight with legitimately compelling things to say about its subject, but it instead becomes an unimaginative and dreary mess of a film in the sense that it never elevates itself beyond the initial pitch of its story.   

One of the damning elements here is the wanton gore.  I'm no prude.  Some of the greatest films of all time have been violent.  THE BELKO EXPERIMENT revels in scene after scene of characters committing unspeakably cruel acts on one another in sickening, in-your-face detail.  This has the negative side effect of all but distracting us from what should have been a strong thematic undercurrent, during which time the whole message of the film is hopelessly lost.  THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is simply unpleasant to sit through as we witness countless people have their brains blown out by those remote bombs in shot after shot that seems to paradoxically rejoice in the brain matter painting the office walls and floors.  Another scene showcasing worker on worker carnage, for example, involves one having their face and head bashed into a pulp in unsettling detail via a tape dispenser and another shows a worker getting their face impaled by a fireman's axe.  One deplorable moment features a man having his cranium struck so hard that we that we see a massive dent in it in graphic detail.  Yuck. 

As I was trying to endure this film - which does become an endurance test even at under 90 minutes - I found myself asking "Just what in the hell is going on here?"  Gunn and McLean seem to be deriving fetishistic joy in spearheading this film towards grindhouse levels of ultra-gore when they really should be commenting on it.  There reaches a point in the film when I became so numbed into submission by its twisted levels of violence that, when all is said and done, it's the violence itself that's the only selling point.  Worse yet, the characters on display are essentially reduced down to rudimentary stock types instead of fully fleshed out human beings, which means that caring about any one particular one is impossible as they're being methodically slaughtered one by one.  For a film that's about death (and a lot of it), THE BELKO EXPERIMENT has virtually nothing of interest to say about why people kill each other.  And deep down...I think it wants to. 

In the end, I found THE BELKO EXPERIMENT to be one of the worst kind of films: one that's so depressingly cynical, stylistically repugnant, and dramatically void that you'll leave the cinema after watching it feeling dirty and in need of cleansing.  That, and the manner that Gunn's script careens towards an ending that's both crushingly anticlimactic and shamelessly trying to set up sequels instead of providing some reasonable closure will have many a viewer crying a resounding foul.  THE BELKO EXPERIMENT - with a far better director, screenplay, and creative impulses - could have truly built towards something relevant and intriguing as a mad work of macabre social satire.  Pessimistically and unforgivably, this horror-thriller-comedy wears its scandalous parade of killing like a smug and self-congratulatory badge of honor, which makes it a revoltingly condescending work that thinks its smarter than it actually is.  

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