The Belko Experiment (2017) ★★★½

Just another day at the office becomes a bloodbath in writer James Gunn’s and director Greg McLean’s horror/actioner The Belko Experiment, an extremely gory battle of ideologies that manages a delicate, but not always successful balancing act between its many different tones. If you’ve ever daydreamed about your co-workers’ heads exploding, this might be the film for you, as no manner of office personality is spared from a cruel fate, in an equal opportunity offender that is an extremely bloody cross between television’s The Office and The Hunger Games.

A brief introduction to the main characters, establishing personalities through standard-issue tensions among the cubicles, while someone takes notice that the guards at the front gate are sending home all the Colombian locals, invokes a rather quick getting down to business. Metal walls suddenly seal off the outside, and a disembodied voice beams through the intercom, cutting short the usual office shenanigans in the Bogotá, Columbia skyscraper, and orders the terrified staff to start killing each other, or else twice as many will die by way of a tracking device inserted in each of their heads when they agreed to take the job, disguised at the time as a means to locate them in case they were ever kidnapped. Believing it to be a prank, COO Barry Norris (an incredibly anti-aging Tony Goldwyn) gathers everyone in the lobby, offers bottled water along with a silver-tongued assurance that everything will be all right. Office worker Mitch (John Gallagher Jr.) has his doubts, but becomes even more cautious once the intercom voice sets in motion a series of co-workers’ heads exploding, and many of the staff begin to seriously contemplate killing each other, and setting up logical rules of extermination based on age and number of children and overall utility.

The predominate conflict here is between the cold logic of kill or be killed and murder is wrong, the latter taken up by Mitch, who comes across as a Libertarian Jim Halpert from The Office, with his clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra and fair play demeanor, espousing several times that circumstances should not change what is right and wrong, and doing everything he can to save as many people as possible in light of the facts staring him in the face. Undoubtedly meant to elevate him above the fray, with a side effect of telegraphing the film’s ending, his refusal to play along with the ultra-violent horrorshow director McLean has in store occasionally makes him seem like a buzzkill, but it’s just another reflection of the film’s unevenness. Dilemmas like this usually find the audience supporting characters based on the quality of the acting, and it’s hard to resist the one-two punch of Goldwyn and fellow screen veteran John C. McGinley, joining forces out of self-preservation which slowly gives way to bloodlust. But there is also a constant struggle in the film between the subversive and the brutal. James Gunn, the creative force behind Guardians Of The Galaxy, fills the page with knowing winks about office life and anti-corporate barbs and breaks from convention, which butt-heads with director McLean’s (Wolf Creek) unflinching brutality and gorefest. There are times when it works well, following a supporting character only to see their head explode and rationalizing a sly transference of office responsibilities to this new situation, and times when it doesn’t, paranoia about the water leading to turning over all the coolers and a stapler being used to dispatch someone as a kind of coy symbolism. I’m not sure I would trade one for the other though, and McLean does as good a job as possible reconciling the material with his vision.

While character arcs are nothing that can’t be found in any season of The Walking Dead, it’s clear the focal point of the film is the “what if” scenario of survival of the fittest. With such a large concept, however, a satisfying ending becomes a near-impossibility, as no resolution can conceivably measure up to a skyscraper full of people killing each other while heads are randomly exploding. Gunn opts for some moralizing poetic justice, while McClean revels in nihilistic cynicism, but it’s obvious by the time only one character remains we’ve already seen the film both filmmakers wanted us to. Definitely not for the squeamish, with even its more cartoonish violence afforded a sinister resonance, The Belko Experiment plays out like a comic book fantasy of chaos any nine-to-fiver can relate to, and succeeds more often than not at effectively communicating the nightmarish vision. While the black and white character details, aligned by their role as pawns in the destruction, rob the film of any greater ambitions, it is nevertheless an exciting eighty minutes of mostly sustained violence and violent showdowns. Not something that’s likely to be discussed over water coolers due to its niche audience (and I maintain that the ad campaign should have included “From The Writer Of Guardians Of The Galaxy”), The Belko Experiment is proof that tonally inconsistent, violent fantasies are still alive and well at the box office.

The Verdict: Rave