Tuesday, March 28, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: The Belko Experiment

The Belko Experiment was written by James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean.

Gunn is a prolific writer & director, whose films are some of my favorites. He previously wrote the live action Scooby-Doo, Dawn Of The Dead (2004) and Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed. He wrote and directed Slither, Super and Guardians Of The Galaxy.

McLean wrote and directed Wolf Creek, Rogue, Wolf Creek 2 and The Darkness. Yikes, The Darkness was one of the worst movies I saw last year. Fortunately McLean redeems himself here with The Belko Experiment.

It sounds like a hack "one line pitch," but it's like the poster says
 if you take Office Space and cross it with Battle Royale, you'll have a pretty good idea what this film's about. Or for those of you born in this century, substitute The Hunger Games for Battle Royale.

There's even a slight bit of The Cabin In The Woods thrown in at the very end, for good measure!

James Gunn wrote the script for The Belko Experiment in 2007, based on a dream (more like a nightmare!) he had about an office where the employees have to kill to survive. He had every intention of directing his script, but when it 
came time to commit to the project in 2008, Gunn was going through a divorce from actress Jenna Fisher (Pam Beesly of The Office fame). 

Gunn decided he didn't want to spend several months working on such a violent and brutal film and dropped out of the project. Thanks a lot, Pam! The project then languished in Development Hell until now.

After the success of Guardians Of The Galaxy, producer John Glickman contacted Gunn and asked if he'd be interested in finally directing The Belko Experiment. Unfortunately Gunn was too busy with Guardians 2, but recommended director Greg McLean, helped with preproduction and casting and was even heavily involved in the editing process.

On the surface, The Belko Experiment is a violent, blood-soaked survival/horror film. Look a little deeper though, and you'll find it's also a very apt metaphor for the cutthroat nature of modern corporate America. A culture in which millions of innocent workers are routinely eliminated— not with an axe or a gun, but with the stroke of a pen by boardrooms full of soulless, unseen executives, whose only thought is pleasing their shareholders.

The film actually hit pretty close to home for me. In fact I've been part of several Belko Experiments in the past fifteen years or so. Many's the time I've witnessed management eradicate thirty jobs to save sixty, much like in the film.

I don't know if writer James Gunn consciously intended the film to be such a spot on satire of the ruthlessness of office culture or not, but if he did, then the man's a goddamned genius!

So far the film isn't exactly burning up the box office. After about two weeks, it's grossed around $7.5 million against its $5 million budget. Maybe they should have released this film in January or February when there was little or no competition, instead of putting it out opposite blockbusters like Logan, Beauty And The Beast and Kong: Skull Island.


The Plot:
Mike Milch (played by John Gallagher Jr., of 10 Cloverfield Lane fame) drives through a poor section of Bogotá, Columbia on his way to work at Belko Industries. Belko's a mysterious corporation that ostensibly provides American workers for Colombia-based businesses. It's a located in an ominous-looking seven story building, in the middle of the remote Colombian countryside.

As Mike approaches the front gate, he's surprised to see a group of heavily-armed security guards inspecting each car and asking for everyone's I.D.s. He finds it odd that the guards send all the Colombian national employees home for the day, but doesn't think more about it.

Inside, Mike greets Leandra, who he's secretly dating (apparently fraternizing with fellow employees is frowned upon). They're caught kissing by Barry Norris (played by Tony Goldwyn), the COO of Belko. He pretends he didn't see anything, and reminds them of a meeting later in the day. Leandra goes to her desk, where she's unnerved by Wendell Dukes (played by John C. McGinley), a creepy middle-aged employee who's constantly staring at her, and thinks she's into him.

Meanwhile, Dany Wilkins reports for her first day on the job at Belko. The HR Rep welcomes her, spouting expository dialogue about how Belko provides its American employees with generous pay, free housing and a company car. He asks Dany if she reported to the doctor yet. She says yes, but seems uncomfortable talking about it. The HR Rep explains that it's company policy that all Belko employees have a tracking device implanted in their heads, in case they're kidnapped in the potentially dangerous country.

The eighty employees go about their work for an hour or so. Suddenly a Voice comes over the intercom system, demanding their attention. Immediately a series of thick steel shutters slam down over all the doors and windows in the building. The Voice tells them they're all part of an experiment, and they have one hour to kill two fellow employees. If they don't comply, their mysterious captors will kill four employees at random.

The various Belko workers are puzzled at first, believing it's a prank. Panic sets in though, as they discover their land lines and cell phones are out. The terrified employees head for the main lobby, looking for a way out. Several head to the roof, looking for escape there. Barry makes an announcement, saying their intercom system has obviously been hacked, and urges everyone to stay calm.

Suddenly an employee's head explodes, setting off a mad stampede. The workers assume a sniper's shooting at them, as they try to hide under desks and chairs. Three more employees are killed, including one on the roof. A terrified Dany flees to the basement and hides.

Barry, who has an Army Special Forces background, examines one of the bodies and says it wasn't shot, as its head exploded outward. Mike realizes the trackers in their heads aren't locators at all, but explosives that can be remotely detonated! He grabs a box cutter, rushes to the restroom and tries to cut out his implant.

Apparently Belko has video monitors in its restrooms (not cool!) because the Voice give Mike ten seconds to stop what he's doing, or they'll detonate his implant. He tries to hurry and cut it out, but realizes it's hopeless, and puts the cutter down at the last second.

One of the employees sews up the back of Mike's head, while the others try to figure out how they can escape. Barry asks maintenance man Bud (played by James Gunn regular Michael Rooker) to try and use a cutting torch on the steel panels sealing them inside. Bud and his assistant Lonnie try the torch idea, but amazingly it doesn't even discolor the metal.

Barry asks Evan, the lone security guard, if there are any weapons in the building. He says yes— there's a large armory of guns for the protection of the employees in case of local revolutions or insurgencies. He refuses to give Barry the keys, saying he feels safer keeping them for now.

Suddenly the Voice returns, announcing that they have two hours to kill thirty fellow employees. If they fail to do so, this time SIXTY will be killed at random! Paranoia creeps in, as employees begin accusing one another of looking at them funny and plotting to kill them. There's a huge discussion among the remaining employees, with Mike on one side, saying there should be no more killing, and Barry on the other, who's actually entertaining the idea of killing thirty of them. The employees split into two factions and go to different parts of the building.

In the basement, Lonnie freaks out as he thinks Bud's after him. Bud tries to calm him down, but he crushes his skull with a large monkey wrench. Lonnie's then killed by another employee, as Dany watches in horror from her hiding place.

Mike's group decides to hang banners from the roof to call for help. On the way to the roof, Mike, Leandra and Evan see Barry, Wendell and Terry Winter using the welding torch to try and cut into the armory. Mike takes Evan's gun and shoots the welding tank (YIKES!), rendering it useless.

Mike and the others go up on the roof to try and hang the banners. The security guards on the ground see them and begin firing, forcing them to abandon the idea. On the way back down, Barry and Wendell ambush Mike and his group. Wendell fatally stabs Evan and takes his keys. Mike's knocked out, and Wendell takes Leandra captive. Barry uses Evan's keys to open the armory, and passes out guns to his "lieutenants."

Barry orders everyone to the lobby, and begins sorting through them. He orders all single employees, and those over sixty to line up against the wall and begins brutally and dispassionately shooting them in the back of the head, execution style. He's about to shoot Mike, when Dany, who's still hiding in the basement, cuts the power to the entire building.

In the confusion, Mike jumps up, grabs Leandra and runs out of the lobby. Barry and Wendell begin firing indiscriminately at fleeing employees. Suddenly the Voice returns, telling them their two hours is up, and they've only killed twenty nine people. True to the Voice's word, thirty one more heads explode (!), for a total of sixty. It then announces that whoever has the most kills by the end of the day will be allowed to walk out alive. Barry's in the lead of course, and begins killing as many of the remaining fifteen employees as he can.

Leandra's attacked by Wendell, who sleazily implies that he doesn't have to kill her— right away. She surprises him by hacking him to death with an axe, continuing to kill him long after he's already dead (What? That sentence makes complete sense!). She and Mike then find Marty (played by Sean Gunn), a cafeteria worker and conspiracy theorist, cutting implants out of dead employees' heads. When they ask him what the hell he's doing, he says he's going to somehow use them to blow open one of the steel panels and escape. 

Unfortunately Marty's shot dead by Barry. Mike grabs the implants from him and sticks them in his pocket (Plot Point!) and he and Leandra flee.

There are now only three employees left alive: Mike, Leandra and Barry.


Mike and Leandra hide in a storage cabinet. Suddenly Leandra slumps over, and Mike realizes she was shot by Barry. He tries to revive her, but she dies in his arms. Enraged, Mike flies out of the cabinet and attacks Barry. Unfortunately he's no match for Barry's Special Forces training, and gets his ass kicked. Barry starts choking the life out of Mike, as he desperately reaches for a weapon. He grabs a tape dispenser and hits Barry in the head with it, knocking him semi-unconscious. He then beats Barry to death with the heavy dispenser.

Suddenly the steel shutters raise, and the armed guards rush in. They grab Mike, who's now the sole survivor, and escort him to a hangar next to the building. Inside he meets the Voice— a middle aged man whose face is covered in burn scars. He says he's a social scientist, and this has all been an elaborate experiment (Yeah, we know, the title told us that) in human nature. They decided to conduct the experiment in Colombia in order to avoid the "legal entanglements" they'd face in the States.

He and his colleagues then begin asking Mike a series of inane multiple choice questions, to see how he's feeling at the moment. He sees a large switch board labeled with the names of all eighty employees, and realizes it's how they were able to remotely detonate the implants. Mike asks the scientists how they like their explosives. The Voice seems puzzled, and asks what he's talking about. Mike reveals he secretly planted the mini bombs that Marty collected on the guards and the Voice when he was brought in. He leaps up and hits all the switches (except his own!), and the implants explode, killing or incapacitating everyone.

When then see Mike on a video monitor, as he slowly stumbles out of the hangar. The camera slowly pulls back, revealing hundreds of other monitors, all showing single survivors. A different Voice announces it's time for Phase 2 of the experiment to begin...

• I honestly don't have much to say about this movie, as it was a fairly straightforward story and I didn't spot many flaws in it. That's a good thing!

• The movie begins with a title card that reads, "An Orion Pictures Release." To quote Obi-Wan, "Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time. A long time."

Orion Pictures Corporation was a prolific film company that produced and released numerous films from 1978 until 1999, when they unfortunately went bankrupt. Among their many releases were action films such as The Terminator and Robocop (the good one), comedies like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, and even award-winning films such as Amadeus, Platoon, Dances With Wolves and The Silence Of The Lambs.

Apparently Orion must have ironed out their financial problems, because it looks like they're back! Cool!

• The movie takes place in Bogotá, Columbia, which, oddly enough, is where it was filmed. 

Um... hey guys, did you know you don't actually have to film a movie in the location in which it takes place? They have these places called "studios" now. Inside these "studios," Teamsters build things called "sets," that simulate various environments, such as a character's home or a working office.

If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably a lot cheaper to film in Colombia than in Hollywood, or Colombia offered the production a hefty tax break to shoot there.

• Despite the fact that James Gunn didn't direct his script, The Belko Experiment has his fingerprints all over it. It even features several stars from his stable of regular actors, including his brother Sean Gunn as Marty, the conspiracy-theorist cafeteria worker.

Sean Gunn also showed up in Guardians Of The Galaxy as one of Yondu's henchmen, as well as Rocket's on-set body double (clad in a bright green unitard!).

Speaking of Yondu, perennial James Gunn favorite Michael Rooker's also in the film, as Bud the maintenance man. This is the fourth time Rooker's starred in a Gunn-related film. He was in Slither, Super and Guardians Of The Galaxy. He'll soon be in a fifthGuardians Of The Galaxy 2.

By the way, Bud's assistant on the right there is played by actor David Dastmalchian. All through the movie (well, up until the point where he was killed) I was wracking my brain trying to figure out where I'd seen him. Turns out he played Kurt, the computer hacker in Ant-Man! That means Dastmalchian, the Gunn brothers and Rooker are all Marvel alums!

• John C. McGinley plays Wendell Dukes, the sleazy office worker who's convinced that Leandra has the hots for him, despite the fact that he's twice her age. Once the Experiment starts, it doesn't take much to turn Wendall into a violent, rage-filled executioner who'll do anything to survive.

Wendall looks amazingly like Bob Slydell, the character played by McGinley in 1999's Office Space. I'm 99% sure that was intentional, and intended as an in-joke. 

Do you think Bob Slydell changed his name, moved to Colombia and started working for Belko? Does The Belko Experiment take place in the world of Office Space? Is this the start of the Office Space Cinematic Universe?

• As the experiment begins, The Voice proclaims there are eighty employees inside the Belko building. However, an overhead shot of the campus shows there are only about twenty five or thirty cars in the parking lot. Apparently there's a LOT of carpooling going on at Belko!

• If I had one complaint about the film, it's that it's filled with caricatures instead of actual characters. We get a few sketchy details about the three leads, and that's it. Everyone else is a standard office stereotype.

I suppose this was inevitable with such a large cast, as the filmmakers just didn't have time to flesh out every character.

Unfortunately that means the audience doesn't much care when they start dying. How could we, as three fourths of the characters don't even have names. It's shocking when they're brutally murdered, yes, but sadly not all that affecting.

• When Mike tries to cut out his implant, the Voice give him ten seconds to stop, instead of just instantly blowing off his head. 

Plot-wise, I get why they did this— because Mike is the "Final Boy," and needs to survive until the end of the movie. But I can't think of any in-universe reason for the Voice to warn him though. Wouldn't it have been an effective demonstration if they'd killed him, to show everyone else what happens to people who tamper with their implants?

• Kudos to the makeup team who worked on The Belko Experiment, who created some amazingly realistic and extremely bloody gore effects. Some of their work was actually a bit too real! If the sight of fresh brains sticking out the back of a person's head makes you queasy, you may want to skip the popcorn during this film.

• After The Voice orders the Belko employees to kill thirty of their number, Barry rounds up everyone in the lobby. He then separates the various employees, deciding to kill off anyone over the age of sixty, along with singles who don't have families or children.

As cold and soulless as that sounds, it's actually a very logical way to choose who dies. It feels exactly like how someone with a military background, like Barry, would handle such a situation.

• Mike sees Barry and Wendall using the cutting torch to try and get into the company's armory. He grabs Evan's gun and shoots the welding tank to stop them. Yikes! Welding tanks are generally filled with highly flammable gases, such as acetylene, propylene or propane. Somehow Mike, who probably isn't very skilled with a gun, manages to shoot the tank in just the right place to disable it, without causing a massive explosion. Even more amazing, the gas somehow doesn't continue pouring out of the end of the severed hose after he shoots it.

• It would not take much to tip this movie firmly into parody territory. When The Voice orders the employees to kill thirty people or he'll kill sixty, I could easily see Mike or one of the others saying, "Wait. Do you mean if we only killed ten, you'd kill fifty more to equal sixty? Or do you mean you'd kill sixty in addition to our ten? You're gonna have to specify here..."

• While watching the end credits, I noticed this line:

Costume and Wardrobe Department:
Melissa Agudelo Cañas— crowd costumer
Mabel Aguirre— costume assistant

Wow I bet they both had a lot to do. Why did they even need a costume department on this movie in the first place? Everyone's just wearing standard office clothing. They probably went to Colombian Sears and bought the entire cast's wardrobe in an hour.

The Belko Experiment is a brutal, violent and incredibly bloody survival/horror film, but it's also a perfect metaphor for the cutthroat world of the modern American workplace. It's also a very cynical look at human nature, and just how little it takes for us to turn on one another. It's definitely not for everyone though, especially those with an aversion to gore. I give it a B.

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