A group of employees at the Colombian headquarters of an American multinational company are trapped inside their building and forced to murder each other in The Belko Experiment, a dark thriller/satire written by James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films. The highly unethical social experiment sets up just under 90 minutes of gleeful violence, but a lack of clear direction leaves it erring on the side of gratuity.
The premise is lifted straight out of Battle Royale, except the teenagers here have been replaced with jaded office workers. Eighty employees are sealed inside their office building and instructed by a voice over the intercom to murder a certain amount of people by a given deadline. Failure to comply with directions results in the detonation of explosive devices implanted in every employee’s head, placed there under the guise of tracking devices in case of kidnapping. The setup is thus familiar, but the new context gives at least some opportunity of a fresh perspective, replacing teenage angst with strained work relationships.
The main thing The Belko Experiment has going for it is sheer entertainment value. The action is set up well with usually satisfying payoff, and the tension is laid thick. The large cast of characters is handled well by dividing them into groups, and, while none of them are particularly round, nearly everyone feels believable and approaches the situation in a realistic manner. Gunn not only successfully covers (nearly) every potential plot hole but uses it as an excellent plot device, the steady reduction of alternative solutions slowly driving us toward the horrible realisation that the worst-case scenario is the only way forward. Pitch-black humour and Gunn’s trademark wit is peppered throughout the script as well, taking concepts like the controlling boss and the office pervert to grisly extremes. There’s even a well-worked riff on the pot-smoking “woke” character from The Cabin in the Woods that I found particularly amusing. Not every joke lands perfectly, but when they work, they really work.
Unfortunately, Gunn and director Greg McLean ultimately undermine the film by failing to find a consistent theme and tone. The absurdist take on office dynamics and deadend jobs gives way to a trite attempt at a “human nature is basic survival” type of musing. A few of the film’s countless kills drift into Final Destination‘s territory of cheap thrills and accidents, inconspicuously delighting in the characters’ expirations. Worst of all, the film’s ending unveils its true intentions, refusing to provide a satisfying conclusion, thematic closure, or answers of any kind in favour of setting up a potential franchise with numerous sequels. It cheapens the entire film and makes its other shortcomings less forgivable.
The film does have plenty of other small missteps, like outdoor shots that consistently reveal the lack of budget or some of the more absurd elements in the setting and premise, which I would have been more inclined to overlook had it not pulled the rug out from under itself. That ending really does make the difference between a solid cult thriller and senseless schlock. While it’s certainly entertaining and has its strengths, The Belko Experiment ultimately amounts to little more than a modern exploitation film with a reprehensible attitude toward human life and suffering.