The American employees of Belko Industries show up for what appears to be another ordinary day of work in the company’s Bogota, Colombia branch — marking it as only a little bit odd that the security guards are all new and the local employees are being sent home. When the intercom lights up and announces that most of them will be dead before the day ends, they write it off as a prank. Then the building locks down. And people start dying. The eighty employees in the building soon find themselves with no choice but to play their mysterious captors’ sick game. The first instruction: Kill thirty of your coworkers, or we’ll kill sixty.
I’ll give The Belko Experiment this much: No movie has ever made me feel quite the way it did. I’m not sure, however, whether I want to give it any more credit than that. I mean that literally: I’m actually, genuinely not sure what to do with this movie. I am of two completely different minds about it. It’s gripping to watch and depressing to have watched. I “liked it” — and we’ll definitely be exploring what it means to “like” a movie in a moment — while it was on and hated it when it was over.
If you define the quality of a movie solely by its ability to occupy you in the moment, The Belko Experiment has you covered. For all its failings, this movie is very well engineered. It’s tightly written, efficient, propulsive; despite a not-inconsiderable number of reviews that have argued otherwise, I think it sets up and telegraphs character arcs pretty well and isn’t, as others have suggested, a completely pointless exercise in brutality. It has a point; I just don’t like that point. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m still almost in awe of how well this short, action-packed movie manages its enormous cast. No, I’m not about to tell you that every one of the eighty employees gets a name, and not even the main characters get any sort of definition beyond what we see in the moment. It has five or six key characters who get broad but functional personalities and command their own subplots throughout the mayhem; the movie then uses their individual perspectives to sketch a broad supporting cast that clings to each storyline — characters you don’t know well, but whose individuality you see through the eyes of whichever co-protagonist they’re connected to. Then, the movie fills out the margins by carefully managing its extras — tossing them a line now and then, making sure the same ones reappear in the same locations where they were last seen, carrying them through from one scene to the next, and giving them enough prominence to remain visible at the margins of the story. This is a horror thriller with the sort of premise that outright promises a large death list, so it probably isn’t a spoiler to say that the casualties exceed seventy by the time the credits roll. And almost all of those deaths matter on some level, whether it’s a main character you’ve been following throughout the entire movie, a supporting character you’ve come to recognize, or even the guy you remember from when he chatted with the protagonist for a second by the water cooler at the beginning of the movie. Only one or two scenes indulge in arbitrary mayhem centered on random dudes in suits you couldn’t care less about.
The movie also locks very few of these characters into definable horror movie roles, which keeps things unpredictable and, thus, tense. A few seeming protagonists get iced right off the bat, while a handful of extras with maybe two or three lines of dialogue cling to life all the way to the final reel. And the movie doesn’t discriminate when the time comes for a character to die. For the most part, there aren’t quick, barely noticeable extra deaths and long, drawn-out, carefully constructed main character deaths. When someone goes, they’re gone. There’s no build-up, no slow motion, no emphasis on the gun suddenly turning to a character we like; the characters will be in an action sequence when, out of the clear blue, one of them just drops and it’s over. The movie will spend five minutes on a character narrowly surviving a hazardous situation only to walk around the corner and get blasted. I don’t see a lot of horror movies that make it feel as though literally anyone could die at literally any moment, but that’s how most of The Belko Experiment plays out. It glues you to the edge of your seat and holds you there until the whole thing is over.
Does it have flaws as a functional film? Sure. It looks cheap, for one thing. But those flaws aren’t enough to push it into negative territory. The Belko Experiment, for me, wasn’t a movie that damaged my engagement; it damaged my soul.
The characters quickly divide into two groups: Those who argue that they shouldn’t play their captors’ game, and those who decide they have no choice but to follow their captors’ instructions, kill the few to save the many. The protagonists mostly belong to the former group and the antagonists to the latter. Around the climax, there’s a scene where the main protagonist and the main antagonist finally face off.
“You didn’t change anything,” the antagonist says.
“Neither did you,” the protagonist replies.
And that’s basically the entire thesis of The Belko Experiment. Life sucks, people suck, doesn’t matter what you do, nobody cares, why bother? We’re all bad people on some level; apply enough stress, and we’ll inevitably reveal that.
I think part of the reason The Belko Experiment is so dour is that it isn’t quite wrong. We all have the capacity to do terrible things, and forced into a no-win situation like the one depicted here, we probably will. Even those of us most determined not to are subject to instincts and fears that cripple our reasoning.
The thing is… I know all that. Who doesn’t? We all live in this place, and it’s hard to look at the headlines we read daily and not see exactly what we’re capable of. We see it everywhere we look. I don’t see a point in The Belko Experiment larger than: “We sure are terrible, aren’t we?” There’s no attempt to diagnose the nature of that terribleness or to prescribe any sort of solution, to reflect some way in which we might try to be better. It does the opposite — it declares that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do; none of it will ever make a difference. It just stares into the abyss and says, “Sure is dark down there.”
You just watch people slaughtered. And despite its occasional nods toward B-movie excess (the already somewhat infamous “guy gets killed with a tape dispenser” scene), it mostly isn’t all that cartoonish or over-the-top. Death is mostly a whimpering, pleading mess. It’s brutal, disturbing, and it never lets up. And for what? So I can learn that human nature is flawed. Great, thanks for that.
With James Gunn on the script, I suppose I was expecting something a little more subversive. Either it was going to be silly, comedic B-movie craziness, or it would have something more interesting on its mind. But I’m not sure it even clears the baseline of everything that’s potentially interesting about this premise. The poster tags it as “Office Space meets Battle Royale,” but it’s more aptly “Battle Royale in an office.” This isn’t a satire of workplace culture or politics, or an observational comedy with weird office quirks magnified to the level of extreme violence. The office is simply the setting where a violent thriller takes place. The same is true of the decision to set it in an American office in a foreign country — that’s ripe for commentary, but it never once matters. This movie would be exactly the same set in the U.S.
It truly is just a profile of human depravity, not so much bereft of purpose as bereft of any worthwhile purpose. When it was over, I felt bad, and I continued to feel bad for a while — and not in the thoughtful, ultimately enriching way a movie like 12 Years a Slave makes you feel bad. Just bad because I’d spent ninety minutes stewing in darkness that, despite the outlandishness of its presentation, is fundamentally recognizable and is always without any touch of light, however small. Maybe the movie is right; maybe hope is irrational. But if it is, it’s an irrationality we need to maintain, because what do we do if we let go of it? The difference between darkness being the permanent state of humanity or a self-fulfilling prophecy is impossible to determine without the benefit of hindsight.
Is the movie fundamentally engaging? Absolutely, and then some. Watching it also made my day measurably worse.
I can’t recommend it.