The Belko Experiment (2016)

*. By “experiment” we mean the now familiar formula of the Game of Death. It’s the Saw concept applied to the boardroom, as had been done previously (but with far less bloodshed) in The Method and Exam.
*. A company of white-collar employees working for the Belko Corporation are trapped inside an office building. A voice (credited as The Voice) tells them that before a certain amount of time has elapsed a number of them will have to die (that is, be killed). There’s no opting out because all the employees have had bombs implanted at the base of their skulls to make their heads explode if they don’t behave. Let the games begin!
*. I thought at first that this was going to be a black comedy. It was written by James Gunn, who wrote the mock-horror movie Slither and the mock-comic book Guardians of the Galaxy, and I think the Game of Death genre is just as ripe for such ironic treatment. I also thought the poster, of a man holding a tape dispenser aloft like he’s about to brain someone with it, was a sign that they’d be going for laughs.
*. But The Belko Experiment is not a comedy. There are a couple of moments of comic relief, but that’s it. The business with the tape dispenser is played pretty much straight up. Somebody gets their head beaten in with it.
*. I’m assuming some sort of satire was meant, but if so I’m not sure what the target was. There’s no pointed political commentary being made on the violence of office politics or fascistic corporate culture. And why the hell the film is set in Bogotá, Colombia is entirely beyond me. I mean, most of the employees are American, with a few English-speaking Hispanics mixed in. So why aren’t we just in some southern California corporate park?
*. In other words, this is a Game of Death film where the game is of no interest at all. The victims aren’t being taught a lesson or asked to solve some devilish puzzle. It’s basically just a last-man-standing slaughter party. Which is lucky for the film’s hero, since he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Normally you’re meant to identify with the people trapped in these experiments, and enjoy watching them figure things out. But here everyone seems to descend not to savagery but to the sort of stupidity you’d expect in an idiot plot. This is fatal to a film of this kind, since despite their reputation for mindless violence they’re usually quite talky and smart. Not here.
*. About the only new wrinkle is the Lord of the Flies-style of tribalism. Or, to take the more proximate inspiration, the demonic team-building of Battle Royale. Even that, however, has its limits and (as they all must have anticipated) things finally devolve into the war of all against all. The point? Even the people running the game don’t know. Basically it’s a social psychology experiment “unfettered by conventional concepts” (which is an awkward way of putting it). Finally, an ironic twist (which had been done before as one of the alternate endings of House of 9, and had at least been suggested in Circle) lets us know that the game is all there is, and it never ends.
*. So it’s not very original. Aside from other Game of Death films we might also think of high-rise horrors like Mayhem or High-Rise that came out around the same time. It’s not very funny, or really funny at all. It has no point. Nevertheless it does have some energy to it, and for whatever reason (I have my own theories) there seems to be a real demand for depicting such reversions to (or revelations of) a latent savagery. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it’s televised.

2 thoughts on “The Belko Experiment (2016)

  1. Sheba

    From what I understand, the main reason for the tonal disconnect between the script and the nihilistic, po-faced direction is that it was an early script of Gunn’s, given to Wolf Creek director Greg McLean. The result: this relentlessly ugly, empty mess.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Sheba! That would explain a lot. Perhaps McLean doesn’t have a sense of humour. Wolf Creek struck me as being one of the new generation of horror films that, like the franchise resets of Friday the 13th et al, took all of the fun out of the originals and just became cruel and nihilistic.


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