By: Heather Seebach
When watching the trailer for The Belko Experiment, many people said, "That kinda looks like Battle Royale!" For those unfamiliar, BR is a 2000 Japanese film about high school students who are put on an island wearing explosive collars and forced to fight to the death. Are they similar? Superficially, sure. Of course, many genre nerds also used that complaint against The Hunger Games, when in fact, the blood sport genre precedes all these films and that comparison is pretty tenuous. Upon actually seeing The Belko Experiment, well, it is actually the closest thing yet to a remake of BR; however, that is not necessarily a negative attribute. While lacking the depth of the Japanese thriller, Belko definitely delivers on the violence and gore with some biting black humor.
Belko Industries is a company that facilitates the hiring of American workers in South America. The film takes place at a secluded location in Bogota, Colombia. Employees there are set up with their own company car, an apartment, and a tracking device implant in case they are kidnapped. Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) notices things are a little different this morning: all the local employees have gone home, and the regular guards have been replaced by heavily-armed soldiers. It makes a little more sense when the mysterious voice comes on the loudspeaker, demanding that 30 employees be killed within two hours, or twice as many will die. Some folks panic, others think it's a joke, but things get dead serious when the tracking device in someone's head explodes. Naturally, a few people entertain the idea of doing as commanded, while others focus on escape. Such is the experiment.
Belko packs a large fantastic cast of actors, including alumni of screenwriter James Gunn's other films like Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, and Gregg Henry. Tony Goldwyn is great as the Belko boss Barry Norris who treats murder like a necessary evil. So too is John C. McGinley's unhinged, cleaver-wielding Wendell Dukes a scary menace. It is a far cry from when he was one of "the Bob's" in Office Space! On the opposite end of the spectrum from them is Mike, who sees no excuse to take innocent lives. Gallagher, Jr. has really shined in the genre lately after co-starring in two of last year's best horror films, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Hush.
As for the BR comparisons, human nature is relatively consistent, so when 80 people are forced to kill each other or be killed - whether it's on a Japanese island or in a corporate office building - they are likely to behave similarly. Some will go mad with power; others will refuse to kill. Alliances will be formed, while some clever folks work on ways to beat the system. All these things occur in both Belko and BR, though the former is more shallow in its storytelling. Besides the basic concept that humans can turn savage in the face of death, the only depth for which Belko aims is that corporate office work sucks - and it does not even drive that home very well. The film leaps quickly into the carnage, which is great but it does not allow much time to nail the banality of office life. Most of the film feels like it could have easily taken place in any kind of secluded building anywhere. There are a few office supply kills, at least.
For gorehounds, there is plenty to sink your teeth into. The violence is unrelenting and brutal, ranging from disturbing executions to a slightly-humorous chorus of exploding heads. Cutting away is rarely an option, as almost every gory kill is on full display with glorious prosthetic fx. Director Greg McLean is best known for the Wolf Creek films and he brings that same savage brutality to this film's violence, while screenwriter James Gunn (Slither, Dawn of the Dead) provides the wit and cleverness. The soundtrack utilizes Spanish-language covers of Life FM-type songs to great effect. While it certainly has some dark humor, Belko definitely leans on the side of tense and disturbing, especially in today's socio-political climate where gun violence is almost status quo.
McClean and Gunn are strong players in the horror genre, so their joining of forces for The Belko Experiment will have any horror fan salivating. The collaboration is unfortunately without much substance and its attempts at satire lack bite. As all the critics will say, it's like Battle Royale meets Office Space, but it does not measure up to the respective elements of either film. As your boss would say, "it brings nothing new to the table." Even the title of the film is a bit of a misstep as it spoils what could have been more mysterious. Despite that, the movie is more success than failure because it's damn entertaining. Likable characters played by a great cast and absurd levels of violence and gore keep the viewer (at least the more sick-minded ones) jumping and gasping. It does everything a horror film is supposed to do, even if it's not exactly breaking the mold. Plus, you will almost certainly leave the theater wondering which of your co-workers would kill you first.
out of 5 R's