*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
James Gunn has proven that he is good at having fun. His movies, whether good or bad, have always been fun to watch. When they’re good, like Marvel’s breath of fresh air Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (and hopefully it’s upcoming sequel), they are really good, and everyone enjoys them. When they are mediocre or just downright bad (I think we can all agree that Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, while amusing, was more than a little ridiculous), they are still somehow bearable to sit through, and you might almost thank him when you’re done for making a terrible movie fun. Gunn’s newest project, The Belko Experiment, definitely falls into this second category. It’s not a good film; it is laughably ridiculous and stupid. It is a fun film though, at least as fun as a film about coworkers killing each other can be. It’s not really that original either – this is basically Battle Royale (2000) in an office, directed by Greg McLean (the guy behind Wolf Creek) and written by Gunn. But it’s a fun Battle Royale in an office, and even though you will flinch and squint, and at times throw your hands up in the air because you can’t believe some people are actually that stupid, you will still enjoy the show the whole way through.
In Bogota, Columbia, the employees of Belko Industries gather at their office on the outskirts of town for their usual day-to-day activities, but they begin to notice something else is going on. There are armed guards at the entrances, checking IDs and sending home all of the local workers, leaving only the foreign transfers in the office. Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to express his concerns about this to his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona), who has her own issues with an impending divorce and a creepy coworker constantly leering at her. As everyone gets settled into their morning duties, including new hire Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz) (who will easily be your favorite to watch the entire film), metal sheets begin to seal the doors and windows, and a voice over the intercom begins to broadcast that before the end of the workday, almost everyone in the building will die. They are told to kill three people in thirty minutes to begin the events of the day, and as the company boss Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) tries to keep everyone calm, several employees are killed through the tracking devices implanted in their brains (given when hired in order to prevent kidnappings that are a common occurrence in Columbia). This separates the building into two groups – those who wants to find a way to keep everyone alive and those who believe that sacrifice is necessary for the greater good, since if the instructions of the voice are not followed, more people will die to make up the difference. This leads to a massive game of survival in the office building, pitting friends and coworkers against each other in a race to see the end of the day.
Because there is an extremely clear influence on the story of The Belko Experiment, there are several elements of the film that you already know, or at least have no trouble predicting. This film is not fun because it does things that no other movie about people killing other people does – The Belko Experiment does almost everything any other movie about people killing other people does. They have the usual cast of characters in their lineup – the morally righteous person who will fight to protect the people they love and defend everyone from death, the trained fighter (in this case a former SEAL) who weighs the benefits of everyone else’s death against his own, the crazy creeper who likes killing for the sake of killing, the sneaker who hides for most of the time to try and survive that way, and basically anyone else you could come up with who should be in a death match is accounted for. And it’s not as though there is no room for the script to widen itself or be something new, it’s just that the opportunities are not taken. Michael Rooker makes his fourth appearance in a James Gunn film with The Belko Experiment, and going in with his name in mind there is a certain expectation because he plays a certain kind of character. Rooker is almost always the violent, unpredictable force of nature that is certainly a danger to any characters he happens to be around (Guardians of the Galaxy is about as nice as I’ve seen him get, and he still threatens to eat Chris Pratt several times). Seems like the perfect addition to a death match film, right? And yet in The Belko Experiment, he is the closest we get to a truly interesting plot twist in the film, if only because he’s in so little of it. Rooker is shockingly underused, getting offed in the early bunch, not only without getting a chance to be violent himself but also without getting a chance to make anything else of himself. Sure, he isn’t pigeonholed into his usual gruff, rough-and-tumble role, but he also doesn’t get a chance to prove that he can be anything else either, and that’s the closest we’re going to get to a real shock in story.
Thankfully, the lack of anything new in the story is made up for with the overwhelmingly gory and shudder-inducing violence. There is no end to the bloodshed, and though a great deal of it comes from bullets (once the characters get their hands on some guns), The Belko Experiment does get a little creative with its methods of causing their characters pain and suffering. Exploding heads from tracking chips are nothing new (again, some heavy influence from Battle Royale is floating like a dark raincloud over this film), but someone actively cutting the back of their head open to try and dig those trackers out? That is definitely new, and also very likely to make you cringe as you watch and wait for the countdown that the voice will definitely give him for trying to get out the easy (?!) way. There are a lot of explosions and gunshots, but then there are elevator accidents, heads entirely dented inwards, stabbings, and some very fun work with office supplies. And the moments that make you cringe because of blood are evenly balanced with the moments that make you cringe because it’s just so awful, like a train wreck you can’t look away from – the calm, killing-efficient demeanor of Norris is very chilling, as are the reactions of the groups he makes in the lobby to start working through the countdown he’s been given before all hell really breaks loose.
All this fun makes it even sadder at how the film ends, which is very blankly. It feels as though the director was trying to go for a Cabin in the Woods (2012) sort of thing, but it’s a very different kind of movie so a similar ending isn’t going to go off quite as well as it did for Drew Goodard. It is fun to watch the killings happen (even if you’re questioning your sanity as a human being for thinking that) and it’s fun to yell at the characters you like and roll your eyes at their antics, but trying to give it a deeper meaning almost halfheartedly is almost enough to suck the fun out of it all. Almost. If there could have been a reshoot or someone went back to change the ending of this movie, I would gladly support it, because the ending as is does not match the rest of The Belko Experiment – it’s not fun, it’s not bloody, and to be frank it is just trying too hard to make the film more than the enjoyable time-waster that it is. There’s nothing wrong with being a time-suck, McLean and Gunn – you just have to own it.
3.5 / 5
If nothing else, The Belko Experiment may make you reconsider your relationships with your own coworkers.