THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, US/Colombia, 2017. Starring John J. Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owein, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer. Directed by Greg McLean. 88 minutes. Rated MA (strong themes and bloody violence),
This is a very grim film.
Centuries ago, in exclusive language times, there was the phrase “Man’s inhumanity to man”. This is very much the theme of the Belko Experiment.
It can be noted first that this is a film directed by Greg McLean. He is not a foreigner to grim stories and grim treatment. He had notable success with Wolf Creek and its sequel and then a television series. He also made Jungle in Colombia. And this film was also made in that Latin American country. The screenplay was written by James Gunn, writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy films.
Belko is an international company with a high-rise office building out in the middle of almost-nowhere in Colombia. It has a monolithic look and, soon into the film, metal shutters rise to cover all the windows and encase it in a kind of armour. Security is very high, even questioning some of the executives as they arrive for work one morning. There are about 60 people who work in the building, a company which helps place American workers in Latin American firms.
The day starts conventionally enough, people arriving, the genial man at the security desk, some rivalries in work, touch of romance, a leering co-worker, the CEO and his spacious office.
This film runs for 90 minutes and almost immediately a voice comes over the intercom setting the agenda for the day, the windows all being closed and shuttered. It has echoes of such films as Battle Royale, the Japanese film where schoolchildren were pitted against each other, sent out into the wilderness to survive and to survive by killing others. In fact, this was one of the key premises of the very popular Hunger Games series, the transferring of gladiatorial combat to the death into a future society.
An intercom voice announces that half the population of the building must be killed by the other half.
At first, people think it is a prank, and take little notice. But, in fact, Belko has inserted tabs into the back of the neck of each employee, allegedly for insurance security in a land of abductions. However, the powers that be can trigger those tabs, explosives, ‘n will – and they do.
As might be expected, there is mayhem within the group, and the question of who will take charge. There is the CEO, played by Tony Goldwyn, a family man who becomes more and more bent on survival and control. There is the leering man, played by John C.McGinley, pragmatic and cruel. On the other hand there is Mike, John J.Gallagher Jr, clearly one of the good guys, romantically involved with a fellow worker, who uses his brains as well is his goodwill to help others.
The body count is very high – that is the point of the story. And, there are gory moments and the audience beginning to feel desperate with the rising horror and cruelty.
There are some heroic people, especially the security guard who refuses the key to the weapons room. Most of the workers are Americans but there are some locals, men and women – but, ultimately, when the mysterious voice announces that there is to be only one survivor, and tabs start being pushed, the death is indiscriminate, except for a buildup to a confrontation between the CEO and Mike.
The audience presumes that the company is conducting a “social sciences” experiment, with the mysterious voice and the range of cameras observing the gladiatorial behaviour.
While something of this is revealed at the end, there are some more confronting images, along Big Brother lines, which means that the whole perspective of the film is deeply pessimistic.
Efficiently filmed, striking as well as horrifying, and, to repeat, deeply pessimistic about human nature.
Rialto Released 12th October
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.