THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (Greg McLean). 98 minutes. Opens Friday (May 12). See listing. Rating: NNNN
The Belko Experiment is a sterling update of the pulpy exploitation thrillers writer/producer James Gunn grew up devouring and then went on to make. It’s simple, effective and nasty, concentrating on a small group of people faced in an impossible situation, forced to work together or die. And possibly die anyway.
One morning, the mostly American employees of Belko Industries arrive for work at their office tower just outside Bogota, Colombia. But this is not an average day: all outbound communications are cut, the building is sealed and inescapable, and a voice on a previously unknown PA system announces that an experiment has begun. The first task: choose and murder two co-workers in the next 30 minutes or a larger number of people will be executed.
That ticking clock — and the unseen controllers’ willingness to follow through on their threats — doesn’t leave a lot of room for debate, and the genius of The Belko Experiment is in how quickly its white-collar comrades divide themselves into idealists, pragmatists and realists. You need a strong ensemble to make this work, and Gunn and director Greg McLean have chosen wisely, casting a range of familiar faces to increase the unpredictability of the situation.
John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Adria Arjona (Emerald City) are colleagues whose workplace romance is still fresh enough to be a secret; Tony Goldwyn is the affable COO who’s maybe a little too into this opportunity to step up and really lead his underlings. John C. McGinley is a tightly wound creep with designs on Arjona’s character; Owain Yeoman a softie who’s nonetheless willing to do anything to survive and get home to his family. Gunn also finds plum roles for his repertory company: Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry and Sean Gunn.
Sure, it’s just a riff on Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, with a little less archness and a little more subtext. (Corporate America is not the nicest place, and so forth.) There’s a set piece at the end of the second act that McLean maybe doesn’t pull off as well as Gunn would have; bleak comedy isnt really a strength for the director of the Wolf Creek movies.
But overall, The Belko Experiment does what every great exploitation movie is designed to do. It poses the only question that ever matters in this genre — who will survive and what will be left of them? — and answers it in bloodily specific detail.
You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll watch people’s heads explode. What more can anyone ask for, really?