Movie Review: “The Belko Experiment” (R)

Movie Review The Belko ExperimentLeave it to colorful screenwriter James Gunn (writer and director of “Slither,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”)  to add a bit of humor and likability to “The Belko Experiment,” a film that sort of plays like a nutty fusion of “Office Space” and “Battle Royale.” This slice of dark-comedy-tinged horror from “Wolf Creek” director Greg McClean might have been drowned in a sea of relentless nihilism had it not been for Gunn’s humorous touch.

The setup in “The Belko Experiment” is pretty simple: 80 employees at an American communications corporation located in Bogota, Columbia, are locked in their corporate tower and forced by an unseen mastermind to murder one another until only one remains. Why? Well, in “The Belko Experiment,” the why doesn’t seem to be as important as the how, but rest assured, there is a bit of an explanation behind the mystery.

Movie Review The Belko Experiment“The Belko Experiment” is one of those pictures where you know from the get-go that a lot of folks are going to die. At a brisk one hour and 20 minutes, there isn’t a lot of time for depth, either, but most viewers aren’t coming into “The Belko Experiment” for any sort of deep meaning, so no harm, no foul. Having said that, credit Gunn and McClean for injecting a little humanity into the proceedings by way of a mostly warm and likable cast.

Fresh off his turn in the entertaining chamber thriller “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the affable John Gallagher Jr. plays the moral center in “The Belko Experiment,” a pacifist who refuses to listen to his captor when he’s told to kill. Instead, he does whatever he can to keep order in a chaotic (and undeniably deadly) situation. Granted, trying to maintain a level of righteousness ain’t easy when you have Tony Goldwyn (taking the kind of villainous character he played in “Ghost” and amping him up to murderous new heights) as your military-trained foe.

Elsewhere, “The Belko Experiment” is populated by familiar Gunn-universe supporting players like Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry and terrific actors like “Scrubs” star John C. McGinley in a role that sort of re-imagines his “Office Space” character in a “Hostel” situation.

McClean and Gunn have as much sadistic, exploitative fun with this premise as they can. This is to say that with its perverse sense of humor, “The Belko Experiment” is more “Final Destination” and “The Running Man” then it is “Saw” and “The Strangers.” It should also be noted that with its jet-black comedy, this film has more interest in exploring the dark-humor-laced ugliness of Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things” than the moral conundrum and hopeful nature at the heart of the ferryboat sequence in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”

“The Belko Experiment” does attempt to give us a little more upstairs then you might be expecting by way of offering up a multicultural cast and taking a few satirical jabs at corporate America. Having said that, if it’s horror with deeply rooted subtext that you’re truly into, this one has nothing on the recently released “Get Out.” Still, the humor and likable character traits put this one a notch above director Jonathon Liebsman’s little-seen and similarly themed thriller, “The Killing Room.”

“The Belko Experiment” feels a bit rushed and moves at a quick clip, perhaps too quick. It’s a nasty bit of B-movie business about how far some of us will go in the name of self-preservation, and the entire movie is punctuated by appropriately disturbing humor and varying tones. From a technical standpoint, it should also be noted that the effects in this picture are solid, particularly the make-up and model work.

In the end, I’ll give “The Belko Experiment” this: It’s never boring. Furthermore, it’s pretty much over before you know it. The ending is a bit uneventful and happens far too quickly, but props to Gunn and McClean for at least attempting a resolve and not leaving things overly ambiguous. And of course, “The Belko Experiment” can’t resist pulling back beyond the frame and suggesting a bigger picture, one that leaves the door wide open for a potential sequel. Is this movie worthy of a sequel? Not really, but then neither was “The Purge,” and the follow-up to that overrated hit was actually stronger than its predecessor.

Irrelevant side note: I loved the retro Orion Pictures logo that opened this film. It took me back to the days of “Robocop.”

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