A recent Hollywood Reporter interview about the cheapie horror movie The Belko Experiment reveals two nuggets of information that seem pretty relevant to how the film came out: reportedly, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn got the plot hook from a dream, then banged out the script in a week. That explains a lot about how The Belko Experiment plays out, as a nightmarish but half-assed scenario where the emotions and the gore have impact, but the larger story behind them doesn’t. It could have used a few more weeks on the drafting table, to sharpen its ideas and give it priorities other than gore. There’s a freshly relevant, Get Out-level social satire lurking somewhere in the movie’s core conceits, but what actually made it to the screen feels much cheaper and easier.
Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) goes lean and low-budget with this bloody thriller, which manages to turn an immense office building into a suspiciously samey claustrophobic space. Belko Industries is a staffing corporation that helps international companies place American workers. Its Bogotá, Colombia office, located in an out-of-the-way rural area, operates under high security to guard against its employees being kidnapped. The generous benefits packaging includes a company apartment and a company car, but also a company tracking chip, surgically installed in employees’ heads so they can be found if they’re taken hostage. Then one day, new security guards show up and turn all the local staffers away. Shortly thereafter, thick metal shutters drop over the windows, and a voice informs the remaining 80 Belko employees on site that they can either start killing each other, or be remotely executed via the chips in their heads. Naturally, they resist at first, hoping it’s all a prank. The first few head-explosions prove it isn’t, order breaks down, and the bloody mayhem starts.
It takes a fair bit of time for The Belko Experiment to find its feet, because the cast is so large and the setup so rushed in order to get to the blood. Eventually, some key characters emerge out of the chaos. Tiresome romantic-lead exec Leandra (Adria Arjona) verbally pushes for an amoral everyone-for-themselves attitude, but spends most of the film urging others on instead of taking action herself. Her Everyman boyfriend Mike (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) is more of a hero, personally standing up for decency and morality, and occasionally getting other people killed as a result. Their buddy Terry (Owain Yeoman) is terrified and willing to do anything to survive; their boss Barry (Tony Goldwyn), a former special-forces commando, is determined to take charge of the murder party and make it as clean and efficient as possible. And then there are other factors, like frightened but decent front-desk security guard Evan (James Earl); tight-lipped Dany (Melonie Diaz), who’s just started her first day on the job; dismissive stoner Marty (James Gunn’s brother Sean), who blames hallucinogens in the water coolers for the whole mess; and grinning sociopath Wendall Dukes (John C. McGinley), who seems to have waited his whole life for a catastrophe to let him off the chain.
Viewers attuned to the social messages subtly or overtly woven into so many modern horror movies will certainly notice that even though Belko Industries is a relatively diverse and gender-balanced company, all the emergent villains are white men. And those men justify their descent into murderous mania in a variety of telling ways, masking it behind responsibility, or openly parading it as survival-of-the-fittest entitlement. McLean and Gunn also use the office setting to poke a little stiff fun at corporate culture, especially with a wry gag involving a chipper company-boosting presentation activated at an inopportune moment. There’s certainly endless grim comedy to be mined from comparing standard business practices to a bloodthirsty kill-spree motivated by unseen forces, and enacted by people who tell themselves they’re just doing what’s necessary to get ahead. In particular, Barry treating a company kill-offs as if it was a round of lay-offs — regrettable, but necessary for the bottom line — suggests some thoughts about how institutions consider their people disposable, and how that attitude comes less from necessity than from self-absorbed, empathy-free leadership.
But the film’s efforts at metaphor or relevance only amount to a few vague shrugs. Mostly, the filmmakers are invested in the shock value of an axe descending repeatedly into a face, or the splatter patterns of exploding heads and terrified, puking victims. The gore never reaches unprecedented levels — it’s startling, but in no way groundbreaking — but it’s still graphic and aggressive enough to make an impact even on jaded horror-hounds.
But with such a large cast, and so many characters who never develop personalities, that violence often feels abstract and impersonal. It doesn’t help that the directives to kill come from an unseen, anonymous source, and that there’s no way for the protagonists to meaningfully fight back against it. Their helplessness and confusion makes Belko Experiment feel like Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, but with less humor, and without the peeks behind the antagonists’ screen to shape and humanize the story. (The presence of a smartass pothead named Marty in both films feel like a particularly revealing touch.) And for those who’ve seen this kind of scenario play out a lot — not just to perfection in Cabin, but in mean, weird, fun little indies like Exam and The Human Race, or bigger blockbusters like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games — Belko Experiment’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t find any ways to distinguish itself. It’s neither stylish enough or ambitious enough. Its characters, its bland office setting, and its hand-wavey “corporate life is hell” messages are all equally generic.
Which is why it’s so surprising that the film has come on the tail of such an aggressively strange marketing campaign, with a Lego trailer, a series of grotesque and silly Claymation teasers, and social media marketing that cavalierly sets up the characters in a sports-style survival bracket attempting to capitalize on the NCAA’s March Madness tournament. All the little stabs at creating a viral experience and building word-of-mouth are funny, but they also put all the emphasis on blood and guts, and virtually none on the story that gets those things onscreen. When the movie itself plays out with the same disappointing priorities, it feels like truth in advertising, but also like an empty experience in ghoulish nihilism. The Belko Experiment ends on a shot that openly evokes Cabin in the Woods, and also unfortunately recalls the recent post-credit scene of the recent Kong: Skull Island. The implication is that there’s a lot more to come, a potential franchise waiting in the wings. The Belko Experiment doesn’t make anything about that prospect sound interesting. There isn’t enough here for one movie, let alone an entire series.