The Belko Experiment 2017
An ordinary day at the office becomes a horrific quest for survival when 80 employees (John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona) at the Belko Corp. in Bogotá, Colombia, learn that they are pawns in a deadly game. Trapped inside their building, a voice over an intercom tells the frightened staffers that two workers must be killed within 30 minutes. When another ultimatum follows, friends become enemies and new alliances take shape, as only the strongest will remain alive at the end.
March 17, 2017
John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona
Blumhouse has been batting 1000 in 2017 with back to back hits in the form of Split and Get Out, released rapid-fire style in January and February. Next on the roster comes The Belko Experiment, a workplace horror experience from Wolf Creek Director Greg McLean and Slither scribe James Gunn, which arrived in theaters nationwide last night. The company founded by industry maverick Jason Blum continues the year with another strong offering. It might not have the gut-clenching suspense of Spilt or the unique and timely power of Get Out, but it’s a top-notch horror offering and a return to form for McLean, who left fans vastly underwhelmed with 2016’s The Darkness, a color-by-numbers assortment of tired tropes that’s biggest fault was being utterly dull.
Official Synopsis: An ordinary day at the office becomes a horrific quest for survival when 80 employees (John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona) at the Belko Corp. in Bogotá, Colombia, learn that they are pawns in a deadly game. Trapped inside their building, a voice over an intercom tells the frightened staffers that two workers must be killed within 30 minutes. When another ultimatum follows, friends become enemies and new alliances take shape, as only the strongest will remain alive at the end.
Work is Hell: It’s an extremely popular theme in horror. It forces us to imagine facing peril with those we work with (as opposed to our friends, family, or those we choose to associate with). It proposes scenarios where the masks of rank and org-chart seniority crumble, revealing the true nature of those we surround ourselves with in order to ply a trade. Most examples of workplace horror, though, take place in manual or trade jobs: Alien, for example, is about a galactic towing crew, and their workplace is a spaceship. Likewise, Ghost Ship follows a salvage team whose office is the enormous ocean; Beneath follows miners, Cooties is about grade school teachers, etc. While being friendly with coworkers is a requirement for most jobs, and genuine friendships (and romantic relationships) are often ignited between coworkers, all these films remind us that those we’re most vulnerable to between the hours of 9 to 5 have no overriding loyalty to us when the shit hits the fan.
The Belko Experiment falls into a smaller subset within workplace-centric horror: Films that feature office workers in a corporate environment. While the office has become common fodder for comedy (and even drama), examples in horror are somewhat rare. Movies about corporations with evil plans to take over the world, like the Resident Evil franchise, don’t count. We had the gory vampire comedy Bloodsucking Bastards in 2015, and techno-anchored Antitrust in 2001; we’ve got The Circle to look forward to later in 2017; Drag Me to Hell and Severance are less obvious examples. All of these films exploit a specific fear-set, one based on the artificial hierarchies and plastic friendships of corporate life. In a way, American Psycho is the king of this type of “worksploitation”, in that it explores the horrors that lie below the surface of corporate greed culture, and the resulting perceptions of success vs failure. It’s the perfect incubator for Patrick Bateman’s dysfunction, as it reinforces his belief that style is substance and humanity is cheap. In a way, American Psycho holds the corporate environment partially responsible for nurturing Bateman’s most deplorable tendencies, essentially giving him justification for committing murder.
If this is the subtext burring within American Psycho, it’s a theme worn on The Belko Experiment’s sleeve. Before it even condemns greed culture, it draws a clear distinction between the kind of cerebral, intangible output of a company like Belko (described as a nonprofit dedicated to helping foreign countries attract and retain American employees) with actual physical labor. As employees of Belko’s Columbian branch brave the morning rush-hour of Bogota in their Cadillacs (perks of employment, along with apartments and other luxuries) the locals pound the pavement in shops that pack every square inch of empty space. We see people getting their hands dirty, sweating, hustling, building, bellowing; but this chaotic look at the poverty of capitalism is soon forgotten within the sleek, air-conditioned offices of Belko. It’s an “Us vs Them” dichotomy that also reinforces the camaraderie among Belko employees, who are all strangers in a strange land (living well above the median income). Everything is quickly turned on its head, though, when it becomes apparent that the real danger employees face will come from within (or the ominous hangar on the back lot).
The manifestation of corporate greed as a disembodied monster with God-like powers is an easy metaphor to make—especially with a company the size of Belko, where most employees never have access to decision-makers above middle management. As much as we’d like to pretend that an office is equal to any other randomly selected microcosm, the previously mentioned artificiality of this environment completely dashes this idea. In a kill or be killed situation, org-charts be damn (along with seniority, tiles, and income gaps). One of two things can happen: People will show their true faces, or else the constraints of the invisible (yet powerful) corporate hierarchy will keep them bound to pre-established roles. Will the maintenance workers rise up to overthrow the Board of Directors, or will upper-level executives harness the established power of their lofty positions to impose dictatorial rule? Will an out-of-touch financial officer who sees people in terms of profit and loss find it easier to detach emotionally, turning the “experiment” into a cold and calculated number-crunch?
Ultimately, The Belko Experiment has a lot in common with horror based on reality TV or academic competitions, where the term “cut throat” becomes a literal description of ensuing power struggles. It’s also similar to films like Starry Eyes and The Neon Demon in that respect. What will you do to come out on top? And remember, you’re willing to risk everything doesn’t entitle anyone to the success they seek: Industry, like nature and Lovecraftian cosmic horrors, don’t give a damn about your soul.
I wish I could say a movie with such a direct and immediate premise didn’t have any pacing problems, but I can’t. The good news is, at 92 minutes, we never have to wait long for some thrills. As for the film’s ultimate message or morality, McLean and Gunn leave it to the viewer to decide what is “right” and “wrong”, and whether engaging in such an experiment even matters? Would things have turned out the same if, instead of killing each other, the employees of Belko decided to through a huge orgy and let the chips fall where they may? Of course, whether “not playing the game” is even an option is another topic for post-viewing debate. Is the film nihilistic or empowering; amoral or satirical; brooding or boisterous?
Bottom Line: The bar has been set high for horror in 2017, and while Belko might not resonate with the impact of recent Blumhouse offerings Split and Get Out, it’s another success for the studio that’s becoming synonymous with top-notch horror. The themes will resonate with anyone who works for a living, whether that’s in an office or not. The cast is great, the script is intelligent and twisty, and the presentation is arresting. The Belko Experiment has plenty of fantastic gore without ever going over the top, and enough genuine human drama to leave a lump in your throat. Did someone say sequel?