American white collar office workers become the subjects of a sadistic, bloody, social exercise in "The Belko Experiment," a horror movie that has aspirations of satire, but isn't sharp or smart enough to decide what point it's ultimately trying to make.
The day begins much like any other at a remote outpost of the Belko Corporation, in Bogotá, Columbia. Our hero, Michael (John Gallagher Jr.) arrives for work, noting the new, heavily armed security detail. He also thinks it a bit strange that all the local employees have been told to go home for the day, but he doesn't pay it too much mind. That is, until a mysterious voice comes on the overhead intercom and calmly instructs the remaining 80 people in the building that they must begin killing off their fellow workers or face execution themselves.
The workers think it's a joke, but then a few of the "tracking devices" (installed at the base of every employee's skull -- in case of kidnapping, they were told) start being set off, splattering the brains and viscera of a few office drones against the walls. The voice threatens more head popping unless everyone starts making with the murder.
At first, everyone works together to find an escape, but those efforts break down and the workers begin to divide into factions. There's the "good guys" led by Michael and his in-office girlfriend, Leandra (Adria Arjona), and then there's the "bad guys," headed by the company's COO (Tony Goldwyn) and the general office weirdo (John C. McGinley). It's probably not much of a shock to say that before long, it's hard to distinguish between the groups.
I suppose this can be seen as a comment on the simmering savagery that lurks beneath the bright, beaming exterior of corporate culture, or of the depths we humans will sink in order to ensure our own survival. But those points have been made before and better in a dozen other films.
"The Belko Experiment" comes from director Greg McLean ("Wolf Creek"), with a script by James Gunn ("Guardians of the Galaxy"), and the biggest problem is that the two can't decide how seriously they want to take their premise. Their indecision results in a tone that veers wildly between tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious.
Certain other choices made by the filmmakers don't help matters. For instance, the initial chaos once heads start to explode is shot to appear as though there might be a mass shooter loose in the building (and that's exactly what the characters initially think is happening). I probably don't need to tell you this makes for a queasy visual reference point. Still, the performances are solid from the entire -- incredibly game -- cast.
But the film isn't particularly stylish or inventive, and its attempts at humor fall flat. The sheer ugliness of its worldview keeps the film from being any fun. It's actively unpleasant to watch innocents plead for their lives before being viciously slaughtered over and over and over again.
I originally saw "The Belko Experiment" back in September when it played as part of the Midnight Madness program at the Toronto International Film Festival, and even amid an audience tailor-made to appreciate a film like this (and they very much seemed to), it didn't quite work for me.
A lot of has changed in the world since last September, though. I suspect that watching "The Belko Experiment" now, its humor would probably still be lame and its ending still astoundingly anti-climactic. But maybe its cynical edge would be cathartic: a primal scream of rage from the average Joe forced to toil every day in a system he knows is rigged. On the other hand, if I get the urge to watch people tear each other apart and seek to destroy one another's livelihoods, I can always turn on the news.