Movie Review : The Belko Experiment (2016)
If you want to get away with being a dick on film in 2019, just say you’re running a social experiment. It’s not clear whether they serve any purpose or not, but we all love to see other people fuck up under duress. There’s been many horror movies putting normal folks through ethical dilemmas in recent years: Battle Royale, Saw, The Purge and most recently the James Gunn written The Belko Experiment. While movies that openly question my own ethics aren’t really my thing, this one “gets” what’s so goddamn scary about pushing people’s buttons for so called “social progress".
The Belko Experiment tells the story of… actually many people who decided to expatriate to Bogotà, Columbia in exchange for good salary and benefits. They don’t seem to know exactly what they do, but they’re here for a reason: children, elderly relatives or someone they need to support. They’re (more or less) all good people at heart. But they’re goaded by their employer into a deadly game: each employee needs to kill two people over the next two hours or thirty of them will die (they’re eighty in the building). I’m sure you can imagine: it doesn’t take long before shit hits the fan and a quite precarious social order is overthrown.
So, the murderous experiment isn’t a groundbreaking trope. The Belko Experiment is, in a roundabout way, just a group of people slaughtering one another for an unlikely chance at survival. What makes the movie interesting and well-written/directed is its complete lack of exposition. It all happens in the same building, over the span of one day. Motivations aren’t justified by long, corny exposition scenes, but personalities rather emerge amidst of all the chaos. In that regard, The Belko Experiment has more to do with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Stanford prison experiment-inspired Das Experiment than it has with a movie like The Purge.
For example, Belko’s COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) decides he’ll enforce the rules of the social experiment, not unlike a Nazi officer in WWII. He decides to play the game and reveals himself to be not only conformist, but also violently controlling. Tech guy Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), for whom human life is obviously sacred, refuses to play by Belko’s rules and takes great risks keeping Norris and his cronies from the building’s armory. Personalities emerge under duress. Some think of the common good, others would sacrifice everyone to see their kids again, etc. The Belko Experiment did that one thing, but it did it well.
There you have it. This is not a complex or sophisticated movie by any means. If you’re not into ravenous murder in corporate setting, you might not even see the appeal. But I liked it because it doesn’t only rely on its shock value. James Gunn wrote multifaceted characters who develop and reveal themselves in an emergency setting. It’s dynamic and engaging in a different way movies of this ilk are. I mean, it’s still a movie about people murdering the shit out of one another, but it’s at least presented in an daring and original way. The Belko Experiment is a fun, quirky twist on an aging horror trope. Come for the murders, stay for the characters.