The official line is that James Gunn (‘Guardians of the Galaxy’) began writing ‘The Belko Experiment’ after waking up from a dream of an office building being enclosed in metal walls and hearing a voice instruct employees to kill each other. Initially, Gunn wrote the film prior to directing ‘Super’ in 2010, although he backed away from the project once it got greenlit. As Gunn's legend grew, he had “kind of forgotten about it” until he received a call from MGM asking if he would still be interested in making it.
The plot follows Mike (John Gallagher Jr, ‘Short Term 12’, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’), a laidback guy going to work at Belko Industries in Bogotá, Colombia. It's a non-profit government organisation that requires employees to get tracking devices implanted in the back of their heads for insurance purposes, if they were ever to get kidnapped in Colombia. Among the other eighty workers in the office that day are Mike's girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona, ‘True Detective’), new employee Dany (Melonie Diaz, ‘Fruitvale Station’), techie Keith (Josh Brener, ‘Silicon Valley’), maintenance man Bud (Michael Rooker, ‘Slither’, ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’), office creeper Wendell (John C. McGinley, ‘Scrubs’, ‘Platoon’), and their boss, Barry (Tony Goldwyn, ‘Scandal’, ‘Ghost’).
Without warning, high-tech shutters turn the building into an inescapable steel cocoon and a voice on the intercom instructs them to kill two of their co-workers. Failure to comply means the devices in their heads will explode. Things escalate as factions are formed and some of the office alpha males take things into their own hands.
From this description, you may very well envision ‘The Belko Experiment’ as an adult version of ‘Lord of the Flies’, William Golding's novel about school boys marooned on a remote island who are eventually divided into two tribes. The members of one tribe, led by Ralph, want to remain civilised, but the members of the other tribe, led by Jack, degenerate into savagery.
James Gunn, who once wrote an edgy, R-rated take on a ‘Scooby-Doo’ film, is no William Golding and the odds of him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature are quite low. ‘The Belko Experiment’ feels like a lesser script that Gunn found wedged beneath his couch and went “Oh yeah! That time I tried to combine ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Office Space’! Haha! That was pretty good, I think?” Since studios and audiences have been fawning over Gunn after the massive success of Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ in 2014, this old script has been dusted off and put into production.
‘The Belko Experiment’ is also one of two films Aussie director Greg McLean (‘Wolf Creek’, ‘Rogue’) recently shot in Colombia, the other being ‘Jungle’, a thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe. Hopefully ‘Jungle’ is a better showcase for McLean’s strengths as a director because ‘The Belko Experiment’ is completely impersonal and free of any artistic signature. Seemingly adrift without the striking landscapes and vistas synonymous with his best films, this is workmanlike stuff from McLean.
‘The Belko Experiment’ feels like a lesser script that Gunn found wedged beneath his couch.
Gunn’s script attempts to juggle action, horror and low-key comedy. Hey, here’s his brother Sean Gunn (‘Gilmore Girls’) again as the comedy relief, playing the corporation's resident stoner and conspiracy theorist. Elsewhere, Gunn and McLean have assembled a strong, fan-friendly cast of familiar heavies (Michael Rooker! Tony Goldwyn! Gregg Henry! John C. McGinley!) alongside newcomers to play Belko’s office drones. It’s unfortunate that the film isn’t smart or subversive enough to warrant their talents.
Although it doesn't hold back on violence and gore, ‘The Belko Experiment’ doesn't leave much of an impression overall. The characters aren’t fleshed out or interesting, a romantic subplot isn’t explored, and Gunn’s signature dialogue isn’t very witty. From the beginning, we are told who to care about and who not to. Despite the seemingly random deaths, we know that the nominal hero and villain will survive until the end. ‘Battle Royale’ (2000), a similar type of film with five times as many protagonists, still managed to stuff more plot, characterisation, shocks, meaning and dignity into its story than ‘The Belko Experiment’ can imbue in twelve floors and a slew of recognizable character actors.
Ultimately, this film exists simply to cash-in on James Gunn’s current success via one of his old, discarded ideas. Unoriginal and rather boring, ‘The Belko Experiment’ script should have remained lodged beneath Gunn’s couch, forgotten by time and gradually buried under a pile of hair follicles, errant loose change, dead spiders and dried boogers.