The Belko Experiment makes for a truly fascinating concept, but is dragged down by mundane execution that doesn’t always engage the viewer.
It seems like a normal day at the Columbia-based nonprofit company Belko Industries office building, as employees such as Mike Velch (Jason Gallagher, Jr.), Leandra Jerez (Adria Arjona), Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley), and COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) arrive for work and go about their business. However, things quickly turn sideways when the entire building becomes covered in large metal windows that lock everyone inside. A mysterious voice comes over the intercom, telling the 80 people that they need to kill two of their co-workers or suffer severe consequences. Brushing it off as a cruel prank, the employees ignore the message before learning that their tormentors are very much for real.
With no way to escape or call for help, the surviving employees have to figure out a way to deal with this unprecedented and bizarre situation. Matters only get worse when the voice returns to announce that 30 people must be murdered in any way possible in two hours, or else 60 will be killed by those in control. Work friendships and relationships are put to the ultimate test as Belko is split into various allegiances, with both sides looking to end the horror before everyone dies.
The Belko Experiment is the latest small-budget horror film from Blumhouse, the studio behind genre hits like the Purge and Insidious franchises. Written by Guardians of the Galaxy helmsman James Gunn, the hope going in was that the film could operate as an entertaining thrill ride that provides the audience with some food for thought on the human condition. It ends up being a mixed bag, as The Belko Experiment makes for a truly fascinating concept, but is dragged down by mundane execution that doesn’t always engage the viewer.
Fans know Gunn is a writer famous for his sense of humor, but The Belko Experiment leans more on thriller sensibilities than comedy (save for the amusing line of dialogue or two). He crafts an interesting “what if?” scenario that makes for a compelling discussion long after the credits have rolled. Part of the fun of The Belko Experiment is the individual moviegoer following along with the characters, trying to decide what they would do if they were posed with this dilemma. As expected, the core group at Belko falls into its own “civil war” setup where certain people firmly believe killing anyone is wrong, while others feel murder may be best for the sake of the company. Though the film obviously favors one opinion over the other, both have sound arguments to make – especially when wives and children back home are taken into account.
The premise of Belko is its strongest point, as the film itself lacks the satirical edge needed to make an absurd idea like this really work on the big screen. Conversations about the “right” thing to do never dig below the surface level and some moviegoers might be left wishing for something that goes into a deeper analysis. Some of this might be the approach of director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), as he plays The Belko Experiment mainly as a straight, serious horror movie as opposed to a (very) dark comedy that provides social commentary. It’s clear just from the main plot that the movie had some fairly high aspirations with what it could do, but the creative team falls short of those, preventing The Belko Experiment from becoming anything all that special. Additionally, the kills are quite standard for this sort of fare, which will be disappointing for viewers eager to see some grisly, creative murders.
In terms of the performances, the movie is anchored by Gallagher, Jr., who is essentially the main hero. There isn’t a whole lot of depth to his Mike character, but the actor makes for a solid conduit for the regular everyman watching, grounding the proceedings by giving The Belko Experiment a human element that boosts the final product. He’s complemented nicely by Arjona as Mike’s girlfriend Leandra. Likewise, that role is a bit thinly written, but the two do make for a good pair and are easy to root for as the gore ratchets up as the film moves along. Most viewers will probably find themselves aligning with Mike’s faction, since they frequently come across as the more relatable and “normal” ones, given the circumstances.
Underwritten parts are prevalent in The Belko Experiment, as many of the supporting characters are there to simply fill out the office and react the carnage happening around them. While this is understandable, it also prevents many of the murders from having any kind of impact in the grand scheme of things, and the people in the movie are largely props taking part in a sadistic game. That said, Goldwyn and McGinely have more to do than others and try to make the most of their screen time. The former’s Barry Norris morphs into a foil for Mike, though Goldwyn does make some acting choices to prevent Belko’s COO from becoming a mindless, mustache-twirling villain. On the flip side, McGinley’s Wendell is a stereotypical office creep who comes across as cartoonish at times. The rest of the cast is rounded out by frequent Gunn collaborators Michael Rooker, Gunn’s brother Sean, David Dastmalchian, and Melonie Diaz, who all do decent work, but nothing all that substantial.
On-paper, The Belko Experiment sounded like a great concept, but is hampered by run-of-the-mill direction that doesn’t elevate the material to the next level. Its fate is most likely to become a new guilty pleasure for horror fans, since its svelte running time (well under two hours) and violence make it a fun watch if one’s expectations aren’t set too high. Gunn and McLean deserve credit for trying something with the potential to be original and different, they just couldn’t quite get all the way there. Viewers intrigued by the marketing might get a kick out of seeing The Belko Experiment in theaters with a group of friends, but those on the fence can wait for home media.
The Belko Experiment is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 88 minutes and is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use.
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