In Bogota, Colombia, a white collar NPO that helps Americans get hired in South America is up to the normal day. Save for the heightened, armed gate security.
Midway through the morning, the office is interrupted by an intercom voice informing them that every employee needs to kill two of their coworkers to prevent further ramifications. The building is subsequently locked down with a seemingly impenetrable metal wall. When no one responds to the request of the mysterious voice of god: people’s heads start exploding.
And…begin a psychological mind games thriller a la Circle, 13 Sins, Cube, Cube 2: Hypercube, Cube Zero, Exam, Buried, Brake, Compliance, 9 Dead, Saw 1, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI, Saw VII, Cheap Thrills, The Perfect Host, The Invitation, Shutter Island, The Cure for Wellness, etc. etc.
James Gunn’s script is the ethical dilemma of the man on the trolley tracks—do you pull the switch to save five knowing one will die because of your decision? It is a concept that entertains the divide between culpability and utilitarian odds.
It is a violent social experiment, and we have seen it before. Without Gunn’s name attached, the film wouldn’t have seen the release it did. And while his script features some of his patented wit, the story largely avoids anything radically different.
The Belko Experiment is a second tier VOD high concept genre film that broke through into the theatrical system thanks to the names involved. Because of this, it is granted a cast of worthy character actors.
John Gallagher Jr. pulls out a fine performance, although not his best. John C. McGinley is adequately menacing. Sean Gunn’s usual Gunn-film comic relief is welcomed. And relative newcomer Adria Arjona is the standout role. Pretty much everyone else, most noticeably Melonie Diaz, is relegated to roles that have little or no agency to the plot.
Even with these performances, the film remains what it is, a rental-at-best midnight movie thriller. A fun movie to watch with friends until everyone in the room realizes that they are smarter and two or three steps ahead of the plot.
A film like this has to convince us of the characters’ motivations; why they take up the ideologies that they do within the framework of the experiment. What we get instead is a handful of characters with already questionable sanity taking the counterpoint position while everyone else remains static. The ethical quandary, thus, becomes secondary.
The characters, then, are rendered useless in a film that requires character in order to separate itself from the chaff. The narrative intrigue rests in the decisions that characters make given a seemingly impossible situation, and yet their choices are treated like foregone conclusions. Characterization is left on the back burner.
What is nearly ubiquitous about this genre of psychological thriller is that the end result or twist never really lives up to the buildup. Quite appropriately, The Belko Experiment ends with a final pull-out shot reveal that you either saw coming or thought was too obvious to truly be the end.
Belko takes ideas of the trolley problem, solipsism, the banality of evil, genocide, and systematic brainwashing of people by the government via drugs. All of this meaty subtext, and yet it all tastes starchy.
The film may want you to herald its concept in the same realm as Milgram and Zimbardo. Well, no, there’s no real philosophical gain to be had from Belko in this regard. And even if there was, Greg McLean’s grotesque direction makes torture porn out of psychological thriller.
McLean may approach the tight corners of the film’s world with adequate claustrophobia, and he also smartly opens the area up when the most tense moments occur, something that sounds counter-intuitive but works with the grim tone of the moments.
On the other side, an excessive and repetitive use of cut-ins to gory points feel out of place for a film this cerebral in nature. The over-use of the close-up, in general, hinders the film and the aforementioned feeling of claustrophobia.
In the end, McLean’s direction feels counter to what Gunn intends for the story. The cheeky lines and moments fall into place in the moment, but in a Gunn-directed picture the entire film may have had the tongue-in-cheek mindset needed for the film to be taken seriously as a genre piece. As it stands now, the film has two tonal extremes that it teeters between.
The Belko Experiment is a strong premise—tired to those who know it—that is handled sloppily. Proper suspense and energy is lacking in the execution of the above average script. It is the film equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. And why bother when you can find it on Netflix in three-and-a-half months.
The Belko Experiment: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)