Synopsis – In a twisted social experiment, 80 Americans are locked in their high-rise corporate office in Bogotá, Colombia and ordered by an unknown voice coming from the company’s intercom system to participate in a deadly game of kill or be killed.
My Take – Have you ever thought, what it would be like if the basic concepts of the Japanese dystopian action horror film, Battle Royale (2000) & the NBC comedy series, The Office (2005 – 2013), were pitched together? Well, filmmakers James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) & Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) have an answer for you here. Before rising up to blockbuster status with the Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy, writer-director James Gunn was known mainly in the industry for being the mastermind behind underrated gems such horror comedy, Slither (2006), and the uncompromisingly rough & silly take on the superhero genre in the form of Super (2010). For some reason, Gunn wrote the script to this film & left the directing to Greg McLean, making this a winning combination between writer and director by delve right into the basic impulses of the human psyche, i.e. survival & manslaughter. Especially for those of us that work in an office for a big company, we’ve all had those days where we felt like killing our fellow coworkers, right? Ironically for places that claim to want the best of the best, they seem to attract a variety of people, but I notice a lot of individuals who says things about the big boys hiding something or the new boss who comes from upstairs. A lot of this has to do with the act that the bigger the company you work for, the more that you’re not told of, sounds like just another day at the office, right? I know the basic idea doesn’t sound unique & shares quite some similarities to franchise films like The Hunger Games & of course as mentioned above Battle Royale, yet the film manages to keep you hooked on from the moment go. Running at just 89 minutes, the film sets up in the 1st few scenes, and follows it up with either being action packed, or taking a break from action and simply descending into dark humor.
The story follows a bunch of employees working at Belko Industries, a vaguely-defined non-profit U.S. company operating at an isolated office building outside Bogota, Columbia, that has been in operation for about a year and employs mostly Americans who have all been implanted with trackers in their bodies to insure their safety from kidnappings. On a seeming regular day, everyone working at the company realizes that there has been sudden rise in security at the company’s compound, who for some reason are not allowing local employees inside. No one seems to know what’s going on, not the CEO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), the building’s security guard, Evan (James Earl), the head of maintenance, Bud Melks (Michael Rooker), or any of Belko’s other mainly white-collar employees and certainly not their newest hire, Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz). However, when the building’s security shutters unexpectedly close and all communications go down, the staff thinks that it is simply another security drill or a test, until a voice over the intercom system (which the employees didn’t even know existed) demands that two of the 80 people present that day be killed within 30 minutes or face consequences. As a precaution, all of the Belko executives gather everyone in the lobby and Barry addresses his employees, trying to keep them calm, as the reactions range from fear to disgust and even amusement at what most of them believe is a prank or sick joke, until the deadline passes and four people end up dying when their heads explode. It seems that those tracking implants are actually explosives that can be detonated remotely. The voice again addresses the Belko employees, promising that if they don’t kill 30 of their co-workers within the next two hours, 60 more will die the same way that the first four did. With the building now sealed by armored plates which emerge to cover all of the windows and doors, with communications cut off and with several ideas on how to escape or get help failing, the survivors discuss and debate their options. While, Barry suggests that they follow the voice to insure their safety, an idea his close executives (John C. McGinley and Brent Sexton) agree with, another lower level Belko executive Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) insists that none of them have the right to take another human life, no matter what, & ends up gathering some supporters, although he’s horrified to learn that his girlfriend & fellow executive Leandra (Adria Arjona), seems to be sympathizing with Barry’s point of view. With the stakes rising high every second, every member of the office begin to turn on each other. Not surprisingly, Gunn‘s script establishes a firm balance between action, horror and organic comedy with his brother Sean getting in some of the biggest laughs as the corporation’s resident stoner and conspiracy theorist, who leads his own little squadron of three for much of the film. Sean Gunn has the film’s biggest running gag as is pretty much a stoner who insists everything going on is one big chemical trip. Even though, the story, and events in it, seem exaggerated, but I can totally see things turning out almost exactly the same way if it happened in reality. Films examining the dark side of humanity, with little to no hope in them, are usually the hardest to watch, but sometimes they’re also the most rewarding. The tight screenplay of the film is what manages to keep you on the edge of your seat practically for the whole run time of the film. It’s a physiological horror film that really asks the audience, “What would you do in this situation?”. What works main with the film is the concept & mystery of the unknown watcher, who is playing some sick experiment seeing how people would react in such stressful situations. I loved how writer Gunn & director McLean made sure there were no clean villains in the film, & everything transpiring on screen was clearly about how people would react, mostly selfishly, doing what they need to do for their family or for survival, even if it requires them to kill a coworker, a friend, etc.
The film is at times brutal but not as gratuitous as other films. What it does well is mix characters that many might be able to relate to so you can find yourself wondering how you would react in a situation like the one presented. It says a lot about human nature. People divide into two camps; the manipulators and those with empathy for others. Yet both types tend to die when the lights go out and the blast walls go down. When things hit the fan and everyone starts to break into group with the boss taking charge and becoming the decision maker on who lives and who dies does create that fear. The film does have a lot of brutal violence, even a sequence when they put a group of people in a side that have no children, and are expendable on that wall for them to be shot at. A bit of an overkill and a very dark direction. Once you can point out the bad group of people and a good-sided people that are fighting back and hoping to survive the terror of this experiment can be thrilling. The unexpected twists to the story are wonderful and plentiful. Characters that I assumed would live, instead die gruesome deaths. The technical parts of this film are very well done. I have tons of respect for this film’s use of practical effects which added a lot of horror to the film’s tone. The cinematography in this film was impressive, keeping a lot of shots close to give off a claustrophobic feeling. The lighting in this film is used perfectly. Towards the latter half of the film, many action sequences were lit uniquely. The body count is extremely high — most of them on screen — and the blood and gore is plentiful and extremely well-crafted, but it wisely isn’t lingered on and there’s no off-putting, drawn-out torture scenes to speak of. Mind you, a few of the most audience-pleasing kills are exceptionally squishy, so I could see this eventually hitting DVD and streaming in R and unrated versions. However, where the film fails is in the structuring of the story. Sure, the Battle Royale formula has been done time and time again, and here we get the straightest form of it, with zero deviation from the norm and zero unique perspective. Where a small film like Circle tries to infuse some kind of basic examinations of social themes, here there is no higher level to the killings. And for this, the film never once surprises with a thought or an event. The characters are just shells of people; just caricatures of evil & good. There is never ambiguity of character, in a film where so much moral ambiguity should be present due to the situation. Agreed, the film aims to deliver a super high body count, which for its genre sound promising, but it also means almost none of the characters get a chance to flesh out or end up with some interesting material to tackle with. Even the known leads are thinly, barely developed characters you’ll never care about. Plus, too much of the focus is on violence and not enough on the actual situation these people are (or could be) in. There was a chance to be really creative and innovative with the scenarios these characters could be put in, but the film instead decides to keep the scenarios simple and just make sure that they make for a lot of violence. To me that’s a disappointing way to go about it for two reasons. The first being that the psychology side of things make for a more entertaining film, and secondly because I feel like the writer should be smart enough to achieve both. Personally, I believe this film would have benefited if Gunn would have directed & brought is accustomed sense of humor, thrill & tone to a film which takes itself too seriously. Then I guess a big point to these films is the big “why” reveal at the end, right? Well I won’t post any spoilers; don’t worry. Based on the build up behind the mysterious voice, I was hoping to expect a bigger answer to this experiment. Sure, the ending can go to a bigger picture, as in something more is behind this. There was far too little exposition, and a closing shot that was a little too ambiguous and open-ended maybe even abstract. Let’s just say it’s one of the most rushed, poorly thought out revelations I’ve seen in this little sub-genre. What helps is that nearly all the actors are really good. The cast comprising of John Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl & Gregg Henry play their parts well. On the whole, ‘The Belko Experiment’ is a little messed up yet wildly entertaining violent thriller made watchable by its bunch of capable actors & intriguing plot.
Directed – Greg McLean
Rated – R
Run Time – 89 minutes