If The Belko Experiment seems like it was written ten years ago, that’s because it was. Written by Guardians of The Galaxy director James Gunn some time before his wildly underrated but extremely dark comedy Super, the script sat around until just this year, when it was finally brought to life by Australian director Greg McLean, best known for his horror breakout Wolf Creek. But while The Belko Experiment invites some pretty easy “Office Space meets Battle Royale,” and/or “The Office meets The Hunger Games,” comparisons, the thriller is too much less than the sum of its parts to deliver much of anything.
Taking place at a large, isolated office building in Bogotá, Colombia filled with with American employees, the titular experiment begins when the building locks down, and a voice announces that if 30 employees aren’t killed within the next two hours, 60 will be killed. While they try to remain calm and figure out how to escape at first, their attempts are quickly foiled when the tracking devices their employer, Belko Industries, has implanted in their heads are revealed to be remote detonators, and then the battle really begins.
There are characters, like the ostensible lead Mike (John Gallagher Jr. giving his all), who tries to keep everyone calm, the group’s boss/former military man Barry (Tony Goldwyn), suspicious stoner Marty (Sean Gunn), and more, but their characterizations don’t get much time to develop, and barely matter anyway. It’s possible that in Gunn’s own hands, the script would come off less ugly and pointless, but as it is, The Belko Experiment is kind of like if you emptied out a Twilight Zone episode and filled it with a multiplayer Call of Duty shootout—the appearance of satire without much beneath.
One of the main gags is how, while some fight to the death is going on, someone else is in an elevator with lounge-y music playing. While this pretty cliche bit might be aimed at the fakeness of office culture, it’s definitely not hitting as hard as a movie with this high a body count should. McLean seems more interested in having a splattery good time, but the blandness of the location and lack of strong theme or characters to hang it on deflate the potentially interesting sociological conceit into a pretty uninteresting series of violent bursts.
The Belko Experiment’s worst flaw though is that, for such a direct premise, it’s message just seesaws between uninteresting and unclear.
SPOILER WARNING: Very few of the employees actually do give in to the demands to murder each other even under extreme duress, and the optimistic view of human nature in dark situations seems like it should be the movies core, but instead it’s the kills and sketch of a romance that get almost all the onscreen priority. Which is, again, why the script may have been able to work were it directed some other way. But as it is, the lack of meaning behind the violence, combined with a vision of and attitude towards office culture that feels distinctly pre-Great Recession, makes me think this long-gestating film is too little too late.
Review by Charlie Heller, exclusive to LAWestMedia.com
Images from MGM/Orion Pictures