I had heard a lot about this mysterious, low-cost movie (US$5 million budget) called The Belko Experiment last year, primarily because of the big name attached: James Gunn, director of the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realised it actually wasn’t directed by Gunn (who wrote the script), but by Aussie Greg McLean, best known for Wolf Creek. Nevermind.
I didn’t really know what to expect from it, given that its premise is not exactly one we haven’t seen before — a group of people forced into a game of kill or be killed. After Battle Royale and more recently The Hunger Games, another film with the same idea feels somewhat risky, though to Gunn and McLean’s credit, The Belko Experiment manages to distinguish itself through the confined office setting and a distinct horror slant.
The characters in the film all work for a branch of a massive but vague nonprofit company called Belko Industries on Colombia. On this day, after all the local hire are sent home, the company building is suddenly locked down, after which a voice through the loudspeaker begins to dictate the rules of a deadly game. At first, of course, most don’t take it seriously, but soon they realise — through a method requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief — that they better start killing or they will die gruesome deaths.
The Belko Experiment is not as memorable as Battle Royale or as epic as The Hunger Games. That said, it’s a nice little movie that’s both scary and fun. Credit goes to James Gunn for keeping the script swift and tight. At just 88 minutes, the film has a great pace and effectively introduces a whole bunch of characters on the run without excessive exposition. It doesn’t take too long before the ball gets rolling and by then you already have a good sense of the key characters and their relationships and dynamics. At no time was I confused about who was who and what their agenda was.
The cast is another strong point. Led by protagonist John Gallagher Jr (I know him best from The Newsroom, Hush, and 10 Cloverfield Lane), the ensemble features plenty of recognisable faces delivering powerful performances, in particular Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) as the boss in charge, John C McGinley (Scrubs) as a creep, Adria Arjona (Person of Interest), Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) as a torn family man, Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a repairman, and James Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn (Kraglin in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a stoned cafeteria worker. There are a lot of characters in the movie, and quality performances help the important ones stand out and rough up the edges of what would have otherwise been stereotypes. For me, Goldwyn — with his mix of charm and intimidation — was the clear highlight.
McLean’s directorial style meshes well with Gunn’s script. For those who have seen Wolf Creek, you’ll know McLean has a knack for the visceral, the violent, and the primal. You get all of that in The Belko Experiment, along with well-crafted tension and dashes of timely black humour. The tonal shifts are not perfect, but the film mostly does a good job of balancing the horror and the humour.
Unfortunately, The Belko Experiment is still somewhat a missed opportunity. For all the intrigue, tension and crafty violence it pulls off in the first two-thirds, the final act resorts to cliches we’ve seen all too often. I don’t know how else it could have played out, though I know I would have welcomed a bolder route that offered more surprises, not just shocks from the extent of the violence. I also felt they could have set up more enticing showdowns between characters by creating additional sources of conflict earlier on.
On the whole, however, The Belko Experiment still turned out to be better than expected. It’s not a memorable entry in the genre or a concept that makes us think deeper, but it’s certainly a sharp, well-made horror-thriller that scares and entertains without taking itself too seriously.
3.25 stars out of 5