There was a time before Guardians of the Galaxy when filmmaker James Gunn was better known for horror films like Slither and for writing the screenplay for Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. One of the movies Gunn had been talking about making for almost as long was a violent high-concept thriller called The Belko Experiment, which as you can guess from the title, has finally seen the light of day. (Gunn went on to make the low-budget action-comedy Super, got the gig directing Guardians and the rest is history.)
The Belko Corporation has a large branch office building in the middle of Bogota, Colombia, and we meet the company’s CEO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn from Scandal) as he’s arriving at work and noticing the new armed security detail carefully checking everyone entering the building. Before we can think too much about this, we meet Melonie Diaz’s Dany on her first day of work at Belko, and one of the company’s more affable employees, Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr. from 10 Cloverfield Lane), who is having a fling with one of his co-workers.
We meet a few of the more prominent Belko employees, and as they go about their normal day at the office, an announcement comes over the PA saying that the 80 people currently in the building have 30 minutes to kill two people or pay a price. Metal shutters suddenly come down around the entire building, shutting the employees off from the rest of the world, and the clock starts ticking, as they begin to realize this is not a joke.
While Belko, on its surface, is indeed a workplace horror-thriller, it’s just as much a character study and social commentary on how far people will go and what they might do to survive in a specific situation. Without giving too much away, the Belko Corporation has found a novel way for keeping its employees under its control, and anyone who tries to escape and not play their game meets a quick and sudden death.
Those familiar with Gunn’s previous work (and not just Guardians) may be surprised by the lack of humor in the film, or rather, there are some amusing characters and moments as they’re introduced, but as things go along, it gets very hard to laugh. Much of that is because the group quickly splits into those more than willing to kill as they’ve been commanded, but as some of the more humorous characters die, usually in gruesome ways, it really starts to wear you down.
With Gunn busy on coming up with a sequel to Marvel Studios’ blockbuster hit, the film was handed over to a similarly passionate horror enthusiast in Australian filmmaker Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), who took over the directorial reigns to give the film a much darker edge. McLean does a fine job handling the very involved and complex wrangling of the film’s diverse characters while keeping the main story moving forward. He’s especially good at creating a sense of this very specific environment, really making it feel like they could be trapped in this giant building.
The cast they’ve put together for the movie is quite good, although not all the characters work or are as interesting, so when they’re quickly picked off, you’ll miss some more than others. (If there’s any doubt this is a James Gunn production, both his long-time pal Michael Rooker and brother Sean Gunn have prominent roles.)
Gallagher certainly makes a great everyman hero for the movie with a nice romance with his co-worker Leandra (Adria Arjona) that keeps him well motived but might not go in the direction expected. On the other side of the coin is Goldwyn and the great John McGinley from Scrubs as the loathable leaders of those basically trying to kill as many of their co-workers as possible to stay alive, as the situation literally becomes about kill or be killed.
In that respect, the movie comes across like a disaster film á la The Towering Inferno, where we get to see how a lot of different office archetypes react to the devastation going on around them. At times, the movie also reminded me a lot of Ben Wheatley’s thriller High-Rise, based on the novel by JG Ballard, mainly due to the building location, except that this film went to such gross extremes it became very hard to stomach at times.
The movie is very violent, almost to the point where you wonder whether even those with the bloodlust for gore can stomach some of the more brutal kills. It makes a grim reminder that unexplainable things like this happen in our world all the time, though after terrorist events like the shootings in Paris and Orlando, seeing the panic that ensues when guns are introduced is also tough to watch.
With that in mind, The Belko Experiment won’t be for everyone, as even diehard horror fans might feel it takes things just a little too far, although it always does so while maintaining the integrity of the characters introduced, and it works well as a movie meant to provoke thought and discussion with a capitol “P.”
The Belko Experiment opens across the country on Friday, March 17.