THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE BELKO EXPERIMENT"
The Belko Experiment is a nasty little movie. It's incredibly sick and twisted. Some people will be deeply offended by it. A few may walk out. This is the kind of film that conservative types point to when they talk about modern-day depravity in entertainment. All of this would be bad if The Belko Experiment wasn't so, well, good. To be sure, this is a picture for people with a very high tolerance for all things sick, twisted, and depraved. Let's not even think what that might say about those of us who fall into such a category.
The story is set at the fictional Belko company's Bogota, Colombia high-rise headquarters. What does the company do? Even the employees don't seem entirely sure. During one workday, something very out of the ordinary happens. All the doors and windows seal shut, trapping everyone inside. A voice on the intercom system makes an announcement. There are eighty people in the building. If thirty of them are not dead within two hours, the string-pullers behind the scenes will kill sixty people in total. At first, everyone assumes this is a sick joke, but when the seriousness of the command is demonstrated, anarchy ensues.
There are some intriguing character-based twists on this scenario. One of Belko's head honchos, Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), thinks that everyone should at least talk about following the order, if only because it would save more lives in the end. One of the employees, Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.), is horrified to discover that his co-worker girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) doesn't fully disagree with that. Other employees include Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz), whose first day on the job obviously sucks, and Marty (Sean Gunn), who thinks that the whole scenario is a hallucination caused by something in the water cooler.
To fully understand The Belko Experiment, you have to look at the two men behind it. Director Greg McLean previously made Wolf Creek, one of the most brutal and unpleasant horror movies of the last fifteen years. (It was too much even for me, and I'm largely desensitized from decades of horror viewing.) He's not afraid of going to some dark places. Writer James Gunn is best known for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, but his previous movies were wickedly funny stuff like Super and Slither. He likes to mix horrific violence with black comedy.
The combined voices of these creators makes for something really unusual. The Belko Experiment asks, What does it take for people who consider themselves non-violent to become ruthlessly murderous? Early scenes show that most of the characters like each other. They've formed work friendships, some of which have carried over to life outside the office. Suddenly, they find themselves in a position where, in order to survive, they may have to kill one another. It's an uncomfortable, but intriguing moral conundrum.
The sheer “What Would I Do?” factor is enough to make the film engaging for those willing to contemplate such gruesome hypotheticals. There are certainly enough moments to make you ask yourself how you would respond if your back was against the wall the way it is for the Belko employees. At the same time, there's something weirdly funny about The Belko Experiment. For example, one significant character exists almost solely to execute a masterful sick-joke payoff. Another scene of extreme carnage is audaciously set to Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't gasp before eliciting a guilty laugh.
Running a tight eighty-eight minutes, The Belko Experiment strips away anything that isn't absolutely necessary. The characters are only as deep as they need to be in order to make the point, and the eventual explanation for the experiment's existence is (mercifully) not beaten into the ground. The movie is what it is: a lean, mean examination of how moral decisions are influenced by extreme pressure.
Obviously, this is not a movie for everyone. It may even be a movie for very few. But if you have an appreciation for horror-thrillers that push boundaries, The Belko Experiment is an admirably messed-up work of nihilism.
( out of four)
The Belko Experiment is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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