Saturday 30 December 2017

The Belko Experiment (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: For the workers of Belko Industries, situated in an office building in Bogotá, it started out like any other work day. That is, until a mysterious voice rings out through the building posing a terrible ultimatum. All the doors have been locked down, and every window has been shuttered; the workers are trapped inside. The mysterious voice tells them that, of the 80 workers in the building, 30 must be killed in order for the rest to make it out alive. If not, 60 of them will be randomly selected to die instead. With their options running out and tensions running high, it seems that some are more willing to play along than others.

John Gallagher Jr. is really damn good here as what can be considered the film’s moral center, always trying to find some solution, any solution, that doesn’t involve bloodshed. He’s the epitome of humanity that helps keep this rather bombastic film somewhat grounded. Adria Arjona as his girlfriend furthers that same need for rationality in this batshit scenario, and her chemistry with Gallagher Jr. is quite sweet; another dose of humanity to help offset the chaos. Tony Goldwyn as the most senior officer of the corporation is very cold in his delivery, tweaked just right to make the impression required.
John C. McGinley as his lecherous right-hand man is fantastic, with every line just dripping in sleaze to make for a nice antagonist. Sean Gunn as the resident stoner makes for some good laughs and even an astoundingly sobering moment near the end as he tries to cope with the numerous deaths. Michael Rooker shows off more of that winning collaborative spirit between him and James Gunn’s writing as he plays off like a father figure to fellow maintenance work David Dastmalchian with all the warmth to match, while Dastmalchian himself gets to let the crazy loose in delightfully visceral fashion.

The premise on its surface sounds awfully familiar, as it should for a lot of genre enthusiasts in the audience. However, as easy as it is to draw parallels between this and something like Battle Royale or even The Hunger Games, it’s fleshed out enough to make it stand on its own two feet. For one, the characterisation is incredibly solid, creating a sizeable group of people where not enough are heinous enough for the 30-kill minimum to have any safe solutions. For another, Gunn strikes a near-perfect balance between the rational and the irrational, where headstrong decisions are met with sparkling clarity from others. Some of the film’s bigger laughs come out of people talking sense right after seemingly pointless bouts of bloodshed.
And for a third, and this is the part that absolutely justifies the setting, it feels like a natural extension of typical office behaviour. If you so much as mention the possibilities of people being made redundant in an office setting, you won’t have to wait long before tensions start to rise. Out of that comes a rather competitive attitude, a “it’s either me or you” perspective that brings out the vindictiveness in certain people.

To round this all off, we have the direction of Greg McLean, best remembered for bringing the outback terror of Wolf Creek to the big screen; survival horror is the man’s bread-and-butter and that definitely comes across with how this film is presented. Aided by the writing, he and cinematographer Luis David Sansas do very well at setting up a seemingly-ordinary office block with a few concerning elements to start the film off on stable ground with traces of something being off. As the film goes on, that sense only increases until it eventually tips over into all-out carnage. This is where the gore starts to kick in, and I sure hope you have a stomach for the red stuff because it flows like sacramental wine yet to be converted. The gore effects are solid on their own, with all the spilt blood and exploding skulls that that entails, but McLean exercises just enough restrain so that the initial shock of the violence is intact but it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Well, as welcome as this kind of viscera can be, and this is where the writing and direction start to clash with each other. As much as I’ve railed against the Eli Rothian approach to horror characterization, I’ve always maintained that there is a reason for it: If they’re going to die, best not to be too attached. This film kind of shows why that is something of a standard, as it gets increasingly uncomfortable to see characters that are actually fun to watch get killed off one-by-one. Especially when it’s being presented in a rather gore-hound way, where the audience is supposed to get some thrills out of the bloodshed.
This sense only grows stronger as the film reaches its final reel and seems to be just wringing out any excuse it can to prolong the violence. That initial setup about 30 having to die so the rest can live? Yeah, that gets abandoned right at the end and it becomes a free-for-all. I never thought I’d run into the problem of characters being too likeable, but when they’re presented as both sympathetic and people we should take some joy out of seeing get butchered, it ends up stuck in the middle. James Gunn ran into similar problems in Guardians Of The Galaxy as far as working through ambiguous characters, but at least there the tonal gymnastics actually panned out. Greg McLean doesn’t have that same touch, and after a while, the film suffers because of it.

All in all, I am slightly torn on this one. On one hand, the acting is very pleasant, the writing carries the positive genre-savviness I’ve come to expect from James Gunn, and the action scenes are gloriously gory. On the other hand, the production ends up stuck in this holding pattern where the audience is unclear on just how much of the violence is meant to be enjoyed, especially when it’s presented in this garish a manner. I’ve gone over a few promising team-ups over this year like Nerdland, and while this is definitely the most promising of the ones I’ve covered, it’s also hindered by how these two creatives don’t really mesh well together. Wrap your head around that one.

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