OnScreen Review: 'The Belko Experiment'

Ken Jones

OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Practically everyone who works in Hollywood works their way up to the top.  Along the way they have to take role or direct films that may not be of interest to them, but it’s a paycheck and it gets them on the radar.  Often, when someone hits it big in Hollywood, movies that they made before they became a star will be circulated as the studio tries to cash in on their fame.  It’s a pretty regular occurrence with actors; sometimes they will even produce new art for the DVD or poster to make the newfound star prominently featured, even if it is a minor role.  Occasionally, this will happen with directors, which is what we have with The Belko Experiment, a film written by James Gunn, the director of Marvel’s massive hit, Guardians of the Galaxy

The film takes place in Bogota, Columbia, where a multi-national non-profit known as Belko Industries has an office just outside the city.  Among the employees are Mike (John Gallagher Jr.), his girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona), a creeper who regularly hits on Leandra named Wendell (John C. McGinley), a new employee starting her first day named Dany (Melonie Diaz), and their boss Barry (Tony Goldwyn).  On this particular day, with locals turned away at the gate, the 80 employees in the building are told over the intercom system that two people in their ranks have to die.  While most of them laugh it off as someone’s bad idea of a prank, the building is completely sealed up with armored walls covering the doors and windows, and a steady decent into chaos emerges as it begins to become clear that this is no prank and people start to panic and lose their cool.

Needless to say, this is a movie in which most of the characters are not going to make it out alive.  I appreciate that the story has no allegiances to any of the characters, save for Mike.  This detachment means that any character can be killed off at just about any moment.  And there are a few moments of inspired and creative manners of death for characters.  There are a few gory moments that may make some people squirm.  To a degree, the questioning of who is behind it all, whether a sadistic terrorist group or possibly even Belko Industries itself, has a baseline level of conspiracy theory sophistication that makes it mildly compelling in a way that a sci-fi cult classic like Cube is compelling.  What it is saying about human nature in a survival situation is a little interesting.  And character actors like John C. McGinley, Michael Rooker, and Gregg Henry all pop up in this movie.

Beyond that, though, there is not much to recommend this film.  The concept is an enticing one, with people being penned in together and forced to fight to the death.  It can be even more interesting when the people put in that circumstance are everyday people as opposed to professional soldiers or trained killers (think The Condemned).  But so much that is found here done better in other films.  Some of the deaths are creative, but most of it is unoriginal.  Stoners who work in the cafeteria are meant to be comedic relief spouting off crazy conspiracy theories because they’re high and paranoid, but it’s not all that funny.  And not as subversive as some of the best examples of this type of film can be, like the Japanese film Battle Royale.  Even a few of the Saw films are better at these moral dilemmas.

Gunn wrote the script for this film back several years ago and decided he didn’t want to direct it, opting to go do Super in 2010 instead.  After Guardians of the Galaxy hit it big and Gunn became more of a household name than he was, The Belko Expermient was dusted off the shelves and put into production.  It’s the kind of film that perhaps would have fared better if it had not gotten a theatrical release and instead had gone straight to DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD streaming.  Maybe under circumstances where people can stumble across it and “discover” it, it could achieve a cult following of some kind.  It seems like it was released in theaters mostly due to the fact that the guy who made Guardians of the Galaxy wrote the script.  Theatrical releases have a certain level of expectation attached to them.  The Belko Experiment falls below that line.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars