The Belko Experiment on its face seems like a satirically edged horror comedy. Comparing the cut-throat nature of office politics with the thrills of confined murder could result in some smarter edged gore in theory. In practice, it’s a clumsy exercise in trying to execute either. Whether or not this was a case of screenwriter James Gunn‘s initial faults or an issue of translation from director Greg McLean is a unclear. After all, many factors can go awry during a shoot. Still, the final result still ultimately feels like something didn’t quite click together with what was released to theaters.
The concept aims to have a “Battle Royale meets Office Space” style tone. One where we get the feel of office politic that slowly devolves into maddening hacking and slashing. Much of that comes through during the earlier tension setting scenes of The Belko Experiment, in which co-workers brush off the unsettling demands of the loudspeaker as some sort of prank or test done by some disgruntled employee. We see the dynamics of the office. John Gallagher Jr is the likable everyman. Adriana Arjona is his feisty love interest who stands up to creepy flirtations from John C. McGinley. Tony Goldwyn is a born leader of a boss that takes command. Sean Gunn is the stoner custodian. All of it is solid setup for these people to clash, given they’re stuck in a contained environment and force to kill each other. The panic that strikes after the first kill is made feels palpable, such is the case with Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian as the maintenance crew. They share a genuine connection of two friends who are cooperative until the fear gets to one of them in a heartbreaking way. Their interactions resemble more of the human component The Belko Experiment wants to keep going.
Unfortunately, McLean really can’t seem to settle on what tone he should go for after this early point. Office jokes, elaborately disturbing deaths and more than a few moments attempted tear jerking moments pop up here and there, but there’s never an authentic balance. Most of it just feels so damn random in terms of cohesive connection from one scene to the next. The term mood whiplash was invented for films like The Belko Experiment, where one isn’t sure how motivations or scenes spring to such violent actions in such a quick progression. One minute we’ve got a subversive joke about two characters whispering in a cubicle, the next a super serious montage of death set to classical music. The comedy especially feels inconsequential, given a total lack of irony as the film rambles along into points of limply engaging nihilism.
The gory death scenes are also incredibly uneven. They range from repetitive head explosions (due to a pretty half assed & unconvincing excuse for why explosive chips would be in these employees’ heads) to a rather chilling use of an axe and a tape dispenser. But it’s not nearly enough to make The Belko Experiment worth much. To be fair, some of this is very clear story problems that might lie on Gunn instead of McLean. One can’t seem to determine the progression of any of these scenes or characters that well as time goes on. We never really get a grasp of who they are as they struggle to survive, which really doesn’t engage us to them as they nearly die at every turn. The only people we seem to get a solid glimpse of are Tony Goldwyn as the rather demented CEO and John Gallagher Jr. as our hero… who’s really a moron at every turn. The rest are canon fodder with a few one-note jokes or drives, but are engaging solely based on the performances like John C. McGinley or Sean Gunn.
Still, The Belko Experiment is a rather uneven exercise in nihilistic satire horror. There’s so much uncompromised brutality on display, but the ends are so underwhelming. There’s a lot of potential in the premise and some of Gunn’s knack for human connectivity within a genre context shines through in cracks. Yet, The Belko Experiment is ultimately a cold one. One that doesn’t destroy with purpose or real intent beyond shallow unearned malice. It’s a cynical bitter story that feels like a first draft more than a completed tale.
Rating: 1.5 Bloody Office Supplies