The Belko Experiment Could’ve Used Some Brains Instead of Blowing Them Up

The Belko Experiment’s poster has a pull quote that proudly screams, “Office Space meets Battle Royale!” That’s typical hyperbole for film marketing, but it’s not wholly inaccurate. Belko sucks the laughs and the commentary from Space and Royale, respectively, before mashing them together in a bizarre hodgepodge. While the film mostly succeeds at its modest aims, it’s safe to say fans of either of its inspirations will walk away disappointed. It hits the middle ground early and never leaves.

You can’t fault Belko for its solid premise. A collection of office drones show up to work and notice a few odd things. An armed battalion surrounding the building. Blast doors covering every exit. And a voice on the intercom telling them to kill each other. They try to escape, but after a couple of heads explode, they’re informed they can’t get out. They have to slaughter one another or their unseen overlords will detonate the microchips they secretly implanted in every employee’s head. People look for a way to avoid the nasty business, but before long, everybody’s arming themselves with guns, crowbars, and staplers. Last pencil pusher standing.

This is, clearly, a rich premise. The potential for commentary and satire is off the charts. What happens when the cutthroat world of middle-management becomes literal? Who are we suppressing under those dress shirts and clip-on ties? How do people react to a world without rules? It’s tantalizing stuff. Sadly, most of that potential goes unrealized. The culprit for this lack of ambition seems to be a conflict between the script and the direction.

The screenplay was penned by James Gunn (director of Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy), who fills the film with morbidly funny beats and acidic lines. It looks like he was aiming for a pitch-black comedy, something in the vein of American Psycho. But the direction by Greg McLean undermines this approach. McLean shoots the film in a straightforward, serious manner. We’re supposed to be appalled by the actions of these characters. This is never more obvious than an execution scene that draws its inspiration from a Holocaust drama. The film lurches from funny one-liners to harrowing violence at the drop of a dime and there’s not much cohesion between the two styles. This conflict leaves the film with an awkward tone, trapped in the middle. It’s a missed opportunity.

It’s not a complete wash, though. McLean is a solid hand behind the camera. He knows how to stage inventive violence and how to ramp up the tension. He sets a relentless pace that rarely stops to breathe. Even if you’d like a more cerebral film, you’re unlikely to notice due to its breakneck speed. The staging is equally excellent, clearly establishing space before the bodies hit the floor. You’re never lost during an action scene, no matter how many heads are exploding. The lighting captures the feeling of being stuck in a humdrum office as it slowly descends into chaos. And, of course, the script manages to score a few hearty laughs amid the carnage.

Belko’s biggest asset is its cast. Everyone’s clearly engaged with the material, despite its tonal whiplash. Special mention must be made of Sean Gunn, who plays a stoner janitor with the right balance of humour and terror, and John C. McGinley, who cranks up the creep factor as an invasive executive. The actors imbue the film with more passion than it deserves, frankly.

The Belko Experiment succeeds as simplistic, gut-level entertainment. It gets the blood pumping and you leave the theater mildly satisfied. But you can’t escape the niggling feeling in the back of your head that it could have been more. If it had really tackled the issues it raised, it could’ve left a bigger impact. As you watch the bodies pile up and the blood flow from every elevator, you can’t help up but feel a few good ideas are lost in all that gore.