Directed by: Greg McLean || Produced by: Peter Safran, James Gunn
Screenplay by: James Gunn || Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker
Music by: Tyler Bates || Cinematography: Luis David Sansas || Edited by: Julia Wong || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 89 minutes
Gruesome, morbid satires of white-collar business or upper class cultures are far more common than most general audiences might think. Films like American Psycho (2000), Battle Royale (2000), Office (2015), and Mayhem (2017) explore an alleged dark, violent, explosive rage hidden beneath the calm, collected exterior of suits and ties in cubicles or classrooms at home and abroad. Sidestream genre films transforming the otherwise quaint, boring, and yes, frustrating settings of boardroom meetings, coffee break rooms, and office buildings into violent, comical exploitative scenarios always puzzled me; I never empathized with the grim satisfaction of well dressed, over-educated colleagues hacking each other to bits despite understanding the overarching social commentary. Perhaps living within those subcultures would enhance my viewing experience of these pictures, but as I’ve stated before, the strength of a film can be measured in its ability to convince audiences to identify with characters unlike themselves. A film that requires audiences to complete extensive homework on its subject-material is a weak film.
Enter The Belko Experiment, the brain child of genre-experimenter James Gunn long before he transitioned to mainstream filmmaking with the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, 2016), and directed by Australian horror filmmaker Greg McLean, who made his name atop grisly thrillers like Wolf Creek (2005, 2013) and Rogue (2007). The premise of The Belko Experiment is simple, but like the Korean film, Office, its execution is way overthought: An American-run office building in rural Colombia (I’ll explain later) is placed on lockdown, and then its employees are ordered to kill each other or be killed themselves by an ominous voice over the intercom. Hilarity, both intentional and unintentional, ensues.
To say Gunn’s whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, almost Coen Brothers-esque approach to dark comedy and extreme violence clashes with McLean’s more Eli Roth (Hostel [2005, 2007], The Green Inferno )-approach would be an understatement. Though I can appreciate the brooding satirical impulses underlying screenplays for American Psycho or Battle Royale, i.e. merging the most dull, pedestrian of workplaces with a grindhouse aesthetic, the tonal mismatch between Gunn’s writing style and McLean’s directorial oversight on this project is notable. The film’s seesawing between farcical black comedy and ultra-serious contemplation of morality is at once its greatest weakness and most defining feature.
Aside from that interesting clash of thematic overtones between screenwriter and director, a not so uncommon phenomenon in filmmaking, The Belko Experiment never made much of an impression on me upon first viewing — that initial reaction itself considered by most to be an underwhelming review — but in the time since I’ve noticed a peculiar cult-following of the movie online. I’m not sure whether this following predated the mixed critical reactions to the film or was a reaction to them, but either way The Belko Experiment’s undeserved “cult status” prompted me to publish my thoughts on this wannabe edgy, yet altogether unambitious thriller.
To return to The Belko Experiment’s wavering tone and baffling self-seriousness, the opposing motives of the narrative’s written and visual outlines are evident from its inexplicable stylized violence and gratuitous monologues. I would argue filmic satires of business and/or upper-class culture work best when they pursue one tonal extreme or the other, be it morbid darkness or tongue-in-cheek comedy. Satire through violence doesn’t require much dialogue because its commentary is executed through action (e.g. Battle Royale), while more lighthearted parody operates better with moderate amounts of verbal altercations, voiceovers, and even fourth-wall breaks (e.g. Office Space ). American Psycho is one of the few effective genre-satires of white-collar workers that is both hyper-violent and dialogue-driven, at times creepy and whimsical, and yet still works as a cohesive movie. The Belko Experiment tries to walk this tonal tightrope and falls on either side like countless bigger studio films before it. Much screentime is devoted to characters discussing the seriousness of their situation, the implications of obeying the totalitarian orders from their building’s intercom, but this combines with the film’s heightened sense of reality during its “action” scenes like oil and water. Relatable, realistic characters grappling with horrific moral consequences doesn’t mix with the film’s elaborate set-pieces, slow-motion kills, or its flashy soundtrack, all elements which are memorable in some way and could’ve been to the film’s benefit in a different context. I enjoyed various examples of all the aforementioned, but in combination it was like eating chocolate mousse mixed with a Cajun sausage-stir fry. I like both chocolate mousse and Cajun stir-fry, but as separate dishes.
Plentiful smaller weaknesses in direction or writing weaken the film further; for one, the movie was shot and takes place in Colombia, whose setting is emphasized throughout the story but has no impact whatsoever on its development, nor are the characters locals nor do they speak Spanish. This obscure focus on superfluous diegetic details feels either like vestigial remnants of Gunn’s script that McLean didn’t know what to do with, or was a function of trying to make the film’s shadowy corporate element feel more “realistic” — in a movie where pencil-pushers are bashing each other’s heads in with tape dispensers. Speaking of that shadowy corporate element, the ultimate source of The Belko Experiment’s ominous voice commanding people to commit atrocities is hamfisted and unnecessarily explained. The film’s epilogue is laughable and feels like the result of producer-oversight to undercut the movie’s dark ending and provide contrived setup for a possible sequel.
At the end of the day, I never would’ve anticipated studios or producers, let alone veritable auteurs, green-lighting so many (re: more than one) ultraviolent satires about office workplace cultures gone awry, but then again their prevalence indicates there must be an audience for them. People’s impatience with cramped office spaces past, present, and future has convinced artists that either (a) we are a hairs’ breadth away from animal brutality, (b) are mindless sheep at the command of autonomous, omniscient corporate overlords, or (c) our world is some combination of the two. Either way, while the premises of these films interest me, the bottom-line execution of most of them doesn’t; I would argue their primary appeal is dependent on one’s personal experience with their subject-matter, i.e. the white-collar office space. I’ll stick to the likes of Mike Judge’s Office Space, myself, as I believe I can understand the subtleties of another profession’s metaphorical pitfalls without characters bludgeoning each other to death.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: I can admire director Greg McLean’s stylistic ambition and predisposition toward gory thrills, but his execution here of another filmmaker’s vision feels out of step and out of place. In fairness to the movie, this tonal mismatch is evident from the film’s comical marketing, but the end result is a movie that takes itself far too seriously with too little entertainment value. The gratuitous violence and self-righteous preaching feel like different movies and border on the tone of Oscar-bait at times, while both the film’s ending and setting make little sense.
— However… a few kills here and there are amusing, while The Belko Experiment’s overall production values and choice of set-design are commendable. The film doesn’t look as cheap as it is.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED.
? After forcing a man to murder his way through dozens of his former friends and colleagues, I could definitely lecture him on the sacredness of life.