Despite itself, Greg McLean's ultra-violent office thriller fails to distinguish itself from its derivative crowd
I’ve probably told this story before, but there was a time that I hated the “Hunger Games” series. In high school, I had quite a predilection for the 2000 Kenji Fukusaku Japanese epic “Battle Royale,” which shares quite a few similarities between each other. Both films (and their literary predecessors) revolve around an oppressive national regime that force children to battle in enclosed arenas against each other to make an example for their citizens to not act against their government. That being said, said specific premise is about the only thing that either films have in common with each other. While “Battle Royale” was a bloodily effective slaughter-fest of 9th graders, “The Hunger Games” focused much less on the games played by said children and more about the effects that the games have on the people of the nation. Arguably, “The Belko Experiment” is a film incredibly similar to this same premise, though it aligns much more to that of “Battle Royale” than “The Hunger Games,” but does this new take on the fight-to-the-death arena film offer enough to set it apart?
“The Belko Experiment” revolves around the employees of the Bogota branch of Belko Industries, a company that facilitates American companies in South America. On what seems to start off as a seemingly normal day, the employees soon find themselves at the will of a mysterious voice that tells them that everyone must kill each other within 8 hours to find a lone survivor, or everyone will die. Played off as a joke at first, the employees soon realize once the building goes into lockdown mode, they soon are at the mercy of human nature as these co-workers brutally find ways to harm and murder each other.
Being someone who works in an office, I was excited to see “The Belko Experiment” to see what office-themed twist it would offer to this trope, but I quickly found that besides its setting, “The Belko Experiment” offers little in the way of innovation besides the occasional killing by office object, which were way too few and far between to even justify its existence as more than just a rip-off of “Battle Royale.” The worst part is that the film was written and produced by James Gunn of “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame, but without studio parameters, Gunn had the opportunity to be as profane and mean-spirited as some of his earlier work has been. While the film is very gruesome and mean-spirited, for a film as short as “The Belko Experiment” that requires a breakneck pace, the moments of truly shocking violence and clever bits of dialogue are far too sporadic to even say it slightly lived up to its potential.
If anything in “The Belko Experiment” is done particularly well, it’s Greg McLean’s direction. Last year, McLean was one of the weaker elements of “The Darkness,” which desperately needed some inspired direction behind it. “The Belko Experiment” felt more like the McLean we got to know with the “Wolf Creek” series, a series that, despite its issues, worked well as a brutal thriller. “The Belko Experiment” is a very low-budget film, at only $5 million for its production, which McLean masks relatively well. Every now and then, some visual effects will come up that don’t look wonderful, but for the most part in this ambitious and incredibly brutal thriller, its budget is felt, but not hampered upon.
But the worst part about “The Belko Experiment” is that it feels lazy. At only 88 minutes, you don’t get a deep look into the lives of the characters that are focused upon, which isn’t a problem in a film like this. When the same film finds ways to cut corners in its gore, the one thing people show up to this film for, therein lies a problem. This happens both in its screenplay with some quick fix kills that feel incredibly phoned in. Though, many times, the film will cut away from a kill to just blood splatter on a wall, which could be a constraint of its budget, but more felt like a creative team that lacked the detailed resources to create such gory scenes. So the question remains: if you are to make a film like “The Belko Experiment,” but cannot find the means to deliver on all the gore detailed in the screenplay, why do it at all?
“The Belko Experiment” doesn’t lie about being a riff off of “Battle Royale,” but fails to work off any sort of originality in its quirky and mundane setting to make anything about it worthwhile. The performances are fine, the direction is competent, but without any sort of inspired direction in its screenplay, the film feels like a half-hearted remake of “Battle Royale,” without any of the biting sociopolitical commentary or edginess from using children in the scenarios. For the creative team behind the film, plus the sheer potential of riffing off of something so twistedly gruesome, “The Belko Experiment” shouldn’t be nearly as underwhelming as it is.
Seeing the Orion Pictures logo on the big screen for the first time in my life was pretty cool, though.
Directed by: Greg McLean
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, and Michael Rooker.
Runtime: 88 minutes
Rating: R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use.
Orion Pictures presents, a Tall Court Entertainment/Safran Company production, a Greg McLean film, “The Belko Experiment”