Even before the killing starts, the Belko Corporation doesn’t seem like a great place to work. With offices way outside the city limits of Bogotá, Colombia, its working environment are seemingly designed to break its employee’s spirits. Inside a drab exterior, they’re confined to workstations that reflect their place in the office hierarchy, with most workers squeezed into tiny cubicles that force them to work virtually on top of one another as they attempt to accomplish some vague goal involving placing American workers in offices abroad beneath the corporate logo of “Business Without Borders.”
Even those lucky enough to get some space of their own find themselves subject to the prying eyes and unwanted advances of their superiors. Then there’s the matter of the subcutaneous tracking devices that have been supposedly implanted to guard against the threat of kidnapping. In short: It’s not a place likely to get glowing GlassDoor reviews.
Then, one day, office life takes a sudden turn for the worse. Metal plates seal in the building and a voice informs them that most of them will soon be dead, but they might have a chance to survive if they started killing each other. Shocked, they decide to push back and beat the system. Or at least some of them do. At least at first. And once those tracking devices start exploding, any lingering sense of esprit de corps breaks down pretty quickly.
Directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, The Darkness), The Belko Experiment comes from a script by James Gunn. Gunn is now best known as the director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but it wasn’t that long ago that he directed the violent superhero send-up Super or the fun, nasty monster movie Slither, films whose lineage could be traced back to Gunn’s roots in the low-budget, shock-above-all world of Troma Entertainment.
Those roots show here, too. When The Belko Experiment turns violent, it’s not afraid to pile on the gore and the unexpected early deaths of some seemingly important characters establish it as a film without many guardrails. It’s unabashedly unpleasant, all the more so once Belko’s employees start to turn on each other.
After a point, it becomes unrelentingly violent, but there’s a dark wit to the film that makes it tough to dismiss. The Belko Experiment owes an obvious debt to the schoolkids-slaughtering-schoolkids cult classic Battle Royale, but just as much to the groundbreaking/notorious psychological studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram. It’s impossible not to ponder what you would do in this situation and the film doesn’t make it easy for viewers to conclude they’d be above bending their morals in the interest of self-preservation. McLean stages the action grippingly and with an appropriately flat look that suits its dull surroundings. He gets a lot of shock value out of the contrast between smears of red blood against grey and beige office furniture. The film occasionally cuts the tension with some black humor, but it’s mostly committed to exploring the horror of the situation.
An even better film might have taken a little more time to get beneath the surface of the set-up. The Belko Experiment barely introduces us to some key players before the killing starts, but some smart casting helps matters. John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) makes a scruffy everyman, Tony Goldwyn slips easily into the role of the executive who sees killing off staff as a pragmatic choice, and Melonie Diaz is especially good as a newcomer having the worst possible first-day-on-the-job experience. The film fills out much of the supporting cast with actors best known for their comedic chops — including John C. McGinley, Silicon Valley’s Josh Brener, and Sean Gunn — giving it a weird off-kilter energy. They’re funny people dropped into a situation that grows less funny by the minute. Even Gunn’s stoner character’s conviction that what’s happening must be in his imagination has a dark payoff.
If the film never gets beyond a sophomore dorm-level probing of human nature, it’s still darkly compelling on its own terms. And it winds its way toward some truly shocking twists, particularly in its final act, when the bodies start to pile up and the number of players still in the game starts to dwindle. It’s a not-for-the-faint-of-heart thriller that suggests, under the right circumstances, even the faint of heart might find themselves making some choices they never imagined having to make.