The Belko Experiment opens with Michael Milch (John Gallagher Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hush) driving through a market in Bogotá, Columbia. Two little boys in skull masks are playing. A third boy in a creepier mask stares Michael down. He looks back at the boy, and an old man selling safety charms pounds on the opposite window, jolting Michael and the audience. He buys a charm and the opening montage starts introducing the other characters to José Prieto’s upbeat, Spanish cover of “I Will Survive.”
The song lasts the length of the montage, and it sets the tone of the film perfectly. The Belko Experiment has a dark sense of humor and the cover of a goofy disco song about surviving sets expectations perfectly: Death is coming, but it’s bringing some laughs. And for the most part, The Belko Experiment does a very good job toeing that tonal line, balancing the funny moments and the scares. There are times when it slips, making the deaths feel a little bit too real for the audience to be able to maintain the emotional distance required to enjoy the humor. It’s hard to laugh after a nameless character is shot while trying to show his killer pictures of his children, but for the most part, the movie keeps the fodder faceless, a necessity so it can revel in dark comedy.
The opening also deftly introduces the humongous cast. There are eighty workers, and the camera at least shows each of their faces before the building locks itself and a voice comes over the PA system ordering them to kill one another. During the course of “I Will Survive” and the next five to ten minutes, the movie brings us from character to character, cycling through an excellent cast, including the aforementioned John Gallagher Jr., as well as Tony Goldwyn (Ghost, Scandal), Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), John C. McGinley (Stan Against Evil, Scrubs), Adria Arjona (True Detective, Narcos), Sean Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super), and Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station, Be Kind Rewind) among others. The sheer number of characters means that no one performer can truly excel, but the ensemble shines as a whole. They’re believable as the employees at a multinational corporation and, more importantly, they’re believable once everything falls apart.
Director Greg McLean deserves praise for managing more than eighty actors, considering he’s most famous for Wolf Creek, which spends nearly the entire film with just four characters. While he leaves his laser focus on character behind, McLean brings the gore he mastered in Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2 to The Belko Experiment. The flim had at least a few moments bloody enough that they were difficult to watch.
The script, written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super, Slither), also juggles the characters well. The eighty employees of the Belko corporation fracture into groups based on how they approach the situation, and their strategies are interesting and varied. He anticipates expectations well enough that most viewers won’t be thinking, “Why don’t they do x?”, because someone in the movie has tried or will try it.
The popular comparison is that The Belko Experiment is like Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, or Stone Cold Steve Austin’s The Condemned. While it does share some creative DNA with those films, I’d contend The Belko Experiment shares most with the real life psychological experiments such as the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment that were conducted before the advent of institutional review boards and are more disturbing than The Belko Experiment. The results of the Milgram Experiment are terrifying and real. The social experiment angle separates The Belko Experiment from its “kill everyone else in this enclosed space” predecessors, but the film fails to deliver the social experiment in the end. When the movie finally addresses what exactly the purpose of the experiment is—which is a question raised by the title and Sean Gunn’s character multiple times in dialogue—it falls flat.
Despite the disappointing ending, The Belko Experiment is a fun movie, filled with gore, a dark comedic sensibility, a diverse cast, and chaotic fun. It may not reveal anything about the human condition, but that’s never what it set out to do. It wanted to entertain, and on that level, it certainly works.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director: Greg McLean
Writers: James Gunn
Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Sean Gunn
Studio/ Production Co: Blumhouse Productions, Orion Pictures
Budget: $5 million (estimated)
Release date: March 17th, 2017
Length: 88 min