In an office building located in some remote corner of Columbia, a group of 80 Americans suddenly find themselves under lockdown and presented with a simple task: kill any two of their coworkers, or face the consequences…in The Belko Experiment.
Written by James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean, The Belko Experiment is a throwback to the same sorts of movies that inspired movies like Gunn’s own Slither. It’s a high-concept, relatively low-budget sci-fi horror experience, one told with a lot of style and humor to off-set the disturbingly dark material the story plays with. In Slither, that was grotesque body horror and loss of identity by way of evil alien parasites. In The Belko Experiment, it’s the moral and ethical ramifications of being forced into a literal game of life or death.
And while Gunn didn’t direct it, a lot of his trademark touches are all over The Belko Experiment. This isn’t to diminish McLean’s contributions or question his talent as a director. Instead, it speaks to the strength of Gunn’s material. Despite having another talented director with his own visual flairs at the helm, this is still Gunn’s dialog being spoken by his characters in some grounded yet hyper-realized world of his creation.
But that also brings with it it’s own set of potential issues. For one, Gunn’s characters, while often fun and endearing, are also often two-dimensional and little more than pieces moved around the board to serve the story and spectacle. You’ll likely find yourself getting attached to at least one of the many characters in this movie. But when they’re inevitably killed off, you won’t feel too heartbroken over it.
And his story demands this sort of detachment. Because like Slither, The Belko Experiment sells itself on the premise first and foremost. This is genre filmmaking at it’s finest. It’s self-aware enough to be fun. It tells its story just serious enough–it swings its weighty themes around with just the right amount of force– to be impactful without also feeling like it’s compensating by the often-comic, hyper-violent death of this or that character. But it’s also balancing the bare minimum of a plot. It’s not too difficult to determine who is going to stick around a little longer than others. Nor is it difficult to figure out where everything is headed within the first few minutes of the film. And yet it’s all so fun and engaging that you won’t really care how predictable the whole thing is.
Of course, all the credit in the world goes to the cast. In spite of the laughably shallow nature of every character–and just about every word that comes out of their mouth–the stage presence of every actor is often strong enough on its own to get you to care. And that goes for the poor nameless faces every bit as it does the more notable roles held by more notable performers (such John Gallagher Jr., Jonn C. McGinley, or Sean Gunn). Every death feels like it has weight to it, and it’s because every actor makes the most of every second they’re on camera. The acting is fun and silly or melodramatic or deadly serious as necessary, which is all the more impressive given how often the movie manages to shift gears without ever stalling.
A MATTER OF TASTE, BUT WHAT TASTE?
That all said, The Belko Experiment is going to be for those with a certain taste in movies. The movie is violent, but not exceptionally so for one all about an office full of people being forced to kill one another. It doesn’t really make light of the violence in the movie, but it’s also filled with fun and funny moments. You’ll cheer or laugh at one death, and then feel bothered by another. It deals with a lot of weighty ideas and conflicts, but doesn’t really care to be anything more than a black-and-white answer to a morally gray conflict. It’s not quite as deep as it thinks it is. And, as a result, it’s also a lot more predictable than it probably should be.
The Belko Experiment is a fun watch for sure. But I’m not sure it quite new what sort of fun it wanted to be. And for some, I suspect the movie’s provocative, stylish yet ultimately shallow and predictable nature is going to prove an issue.
In my case, I’m not sure whether I loved the movie or simply loved so much of its individual parts. But I did enjoy the movie. I had fun with the movie. I liked what the movie was doing and the story it was telling. But I also don’t enjoy how the movie played it so safe.
That said, The Belko Experiment definitely gets more right than it gets wrong–if it even gets anything wrong to begin with. And while your mileage may vary, this one is also a definite CHILL.