Review: McLean’s ‘Belko Experiment’ is wickedly, indulgently familiar

Imagine being locked in a building with 79 of your other co-workers, ordered by a voice on a PA system to kill your co-workers.  Much like deer hunting season, the employee with the most kills, wins.  “Survival of the fittest” doesn’t even begin to describe Greg McLean’s black comedy/horror film, The Belko Experiment.

Filmed and set in Bogotá, Columbia, Belko Industries, an American company, has opened a corporate office on the outskirts of the city filled with a well-rounded mixture of corporate executives and worker-bees; staff members of all ages, races and stature.  James Gunn, who wrote and produced the movie makes effective use of his opening, establishing what’s to come with ‘Yo Vivre’ (I Will Survive) performed by Jose Prieto and sharp-witted dialogue. Cinematographer Luis David Sansans sets us up with short character moments, giving us enough time to get a glimpse in to each character so that we’ll remember them once the carnage starts.

Of course, once the rat race begins, each character tries to grandstand one another.  One tries to assert their authority (the brilliant Tony Goldwyn); another with their sexual prowess (the ever-indulgent John C. McGinley), while others try to maintain calm (James Earl) or their cool disdain (Michael Rooker).  Then, there’s the employee who does what’s expected of him (10 Cloverfield Lane’s John Gallagher Jr).   Much like the star-laden Disaster movies of the 1970’s, Belko has so many characters that it doesn’t matter who’s who. This is its underlying brilliance and its flaw:  it felt very familiar.

Coming in at a very lean 88 minutes, Gunn took advantage of the closed environment, building his tension, not only from the menacing voice overhead, but from each of the character’s fears.  Sansans is up to the challenge, finding angles and using colors to his advantage.  Much of the tension works because of his attention to detail.  The frenetic pace of the film could not have been achieved without the brilliant quick-cut work of Julia Wong (Red Riding Hood, Hercules).

“A fear of competition in a capitalist society” is a theme that runs throughout the narrative to demonstrate the superiority of a few, the result of which is a few well-timed and well-staged murders.  The stated grandstanding ultimately subverts the intended meaning of the film; gore is over-emphasized and our protagonist doesn’t firmly believe in it, it’s not in his nature.  I’ll freely admit that I related to the protagonist, but only to an extent: fear overrules our rationale decision making process, rendering our intelligence mute.  Even our protagonist displayed that ultimate trait, fumbling what could have been a strong horror narrative.

Following on the heels of Split and Get Out, Bloomhouse has locked on to a winning formula with low budget horror films, allowing for each to find their box office legs over the long haul.  Co-produced with MGM’s newly revived indie flag, Orion (complete with their 1980’s logo) and aimed at a very targeted audience, Belko has a reported budget of $5 million and it should continue to extend Bloomhouse’s winning streak.

Gunn’s story is timelier than ever:  it speaks a little too close to what our world is rapidly becoming.  Charles Darwin would probably find the familiar Belko frighteningly humorous.  It starts out very strongly, tightening its grip, gives us a little California Dreamin’ in the middle and is just loose enough to allow the audience to go along for the ride at the end.

Now in theaters, The Belko Experiment is Recommended.

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