‘The Belko Experiment’ Lacks in Subversive Smarts, but Compensates With Gory, Twisted Fun

The premise of Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment is nothing new or unique. The typical “people trapped in a certain environment (in this case, the workplace) playing a game of kill or be killed to reveal their true primitive nature” has been around for decades. With that said, this film feels different from other films that follow that premise, such as the Hunger Games and Saw franchises, to name something more recent.

The screenplay, written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super, Slither), is more than aware of how overly familiar the concept is, and uses that to its advantage. He takes inspiration from J.G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise, in both his use of restrictive geography and in his more comically subtle and dark presentation of the narrative, while abandoning much of an attempt at depth. While this sometimes doesn’t always work, Gunn and McLean are mostly able to give us a twisted and relentless thrill ride.

The major make or break point of a film like this is the screenplay, and thankfully James Gunn’s script makes the film work well. Most films that follow this premise tend to feel the need to provide “deep social commentary”, even if it feels tired, unoriginal and bland. While films such as the Saw franchise are definitely guilty of being tired and bland as they progressed, The Hunger Games franchise is a distinct example of this. It takes social commentary that was already, to some extent, better covered by films such as Death Race 2000, The Running Man and Battle Royale, and tries to come off as deeper and more unique, then instead feeling blatantly uninspired. Gunn’s script, on the other hand, acknowledges this and doesn’t try to be a whole lot deeper than something like The Hunger Games. Instead, it makes fun of workplace politics while also being a campy, funny, gore-covered thrill fest. While it would’ve been nice to see him satirize workplace politics a bit more, Gunn’s script does a great job at bringing the fun while bringing a sense of humanity to it through a surprising amount of character development for such a short film with a thin plot, but also the discussion on what is the most morally correct thing to do in a situation like that.

While Gunn’s screenplay is the star of the show, Greg McLean’s direction and the cast shouldn’t be ignored either. He does a wonderful job of bringing the script to life and staying true to its tone. While the film does go the comedic route, it also succeeds at being really tense, thanks to McLean’s work. For instance, during the second round of the experiment, where 30 people have to die in two hours or else 60 will be killed by The Voice, he really drives up the tension in those final moments as the characters struggle to decide who to kill. It works incredibly well to compliment Gunn’s character development by nurturing fear and empathy for the characters, therefore making the film more thrilling. He also does a great job with subtle visual and auditory comedic cues throughout the film. This includes a fantastic running joke involving the slogan for Belko Corporations in the background that gets funnier and funnier as the film goes on, and a lot of funny song choices (including a Spanish version of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive performed by Jose Prieto) that not only compliment the setting, but also work as a fun foil to the carnage while respecting the tone of Gunn’s script.

The film is also brought to life by a wonderful cast including John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Short Term 12), Tony Goldwyn (Ghost, Tarzan), John C. McGinley (Scrubs), Adria Arjona (True Detective) and Melonie Diaz (Fruitvale Station). James Gunn regulars such as his brother, Sean, Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry also make brief but notable appearances in the film. John Wayne made the controversial decision to portray Genghis Kahn once, but this was later on in his career. Everyone brings a unique energy to their characters, complementing the development Gunn provided in his screenplay. Yes, Gunn is the anchor of the film, but McLean and his cast do a great job to support his vision.

The Belko Experiment could’ve easily been a bland, tired dystopian film that was too full of itself, but thanks to James Gunn’s wonderfully self-aware (to a fault) screenplay, and the support of Greg McLean and his cast, it’s instead an incredibly entertaining, tense and hilarious gorefest. While it could’ve explored some of its satirical elements more, it makes up for that with how fun it gets. Obviously, if you’re squeamish to gore or don’t care for excessive explicit content, don’t watch this film. For anyone else who thinks this sounds like a good time, be sure to check it out in any way you can.

Grade: B+

(Featured image: Orion Pictures)

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