Review: THE BELKO EXPERIMENT Yields Mostly Positive Results

The third act whiffs it, but this "OFFICE SPACE meets BATTLE ROYALE" thriller is still worth a look.

At this point, there are probably enough darkly comic movies about office life to fill out a fairly thorough Netflix section, so perhaps something that The Belko Experiment has in its corner is that it's actually not as funny as I was expecting. I don't mean the jokes don't land - there just really isn't all that much humor in the movie, a bit of a surprise considering the script was written by James Gunn and features a number of performers famous for their workplace films/series: the lead is John Gallagher Jr. from The Newsroom, with John C. McGinley (Office Space), Josh Brener (Silicon Valley), and (OK this might be memorable only to me) Owain Yeoman from Kitchen Confidential all playing major roles. But apart from a few ironic soundtrack selections and some goofy business from Sean Gunn as the office's resident stoner, things are played fairly straight - for better and for worse.

Gunn's script wastes little time in getting things going. The setting is an office building in Colombia that houses Belko, a company that specializes in setting up American businesses in foreign countries (at least, that's what I think they said they do - it's one quick line and it doesn't seem to mean much in the long run), and Mike (Gallagher) is arriving for another droning day. He and some of his coworkers notice a few fishy things about their building's usual security team, and also that the local employees are all sent home, leaving only the Americans and other imports. One might be tempted to draw a connection between that and the fact that it's only the non-local workers that are implanted with a tracker (as kidnappings of foreigners are a major problem there), but the on-screen characters don't think too much of it as they file in, get their coffee, check emails, etc. In a few minutes, we get to meet the majority of our named characters and learn a bit about them, a somewhat clunky but nevertheless economical segment that gives us enough to tell these folks apart and (for the most part) have a reason to care about them when the shit hits the fan. Yeoman has kids! Brener is kind of a clown! Tony Goldwyn is the boss and doesn't seem to be trying to get Patrick Swayze killed this time! They're all filling typical office roles that we can quickly recognize (and, for many viewers, identify with), and it's impressive how many characters we meet in such a short period of time.

It's not long before things get tense - an out of nowhere announcement informs all eighty employees that two of them have to be dead within the next couple minutes, or else several will die. Most think it's a weird joke, but some are frazzled and need assurance that this isn't real. Alas, as promised, several employees are killed by what seems to be sniper shots at first, but then they realize that the trackers in their heads are actually minuscule bombs that can be set off, killing their host instantly. Mike tries to remove his, only for the all-seeing/all-hearing voice to inform him that if he doesn't stop trying to remove it they will set it off, and then they learn about their next "challenge" - thirty people have to be dead within the next two hours, or sixty will be killed via the trackers. This kicks off the most interesting section of the film, as some employees seem a bit too eager to follow the instructions, while others try to keep chaos to a minimum and also seek help. The building is completely locked down (giant metal barricades block all the doors and windows), cells don't work, etc. so their options are limited. Even when they have a plan (such as going to the roof and seeing if giant signs can attract attention from the not-that-nearby freeway), they have to consider that they are wasting their two hours' time - if the plan doesn't work, then they have even less time to grapple with what is for most of them a very painful and difficult decision (not to mention awkward - I would quite like to see what happens at work the next day when the survivors are expected to just let things go back to normal). 

As the boss, Goldwyn has what is possibly the most interesting character in the movie. He knows that The Voice isn't just bluffing, so he knows that they have to go along with their instructions in order to save the other half of his employees, because otherwise they'll die anyway. So he tries to do things the "humane" way, keeping people with young children alive while selecting the oldest employees to go first, but it's not enough and he is still wrecked by it, as opposed to his right hand men (McGinley and Yeoman) who are more than happy to save their own ass if it means wiping out the HR team or whatever. It's also here that the film's potential for humor goes largely untapped - there could have been some fine laughs in using everyday office infractions and altercations as an excuse to murder someone ("You took the last jelly donut, Phil!"), or perhaps sparing someone's life because she was the only one who knew how to replace the printer toner. But no, all the "office" stuff is kind of forgotten after a half hour or so, and it could just as well have been a bunch of random people grabbed off the street and tossed into a locked arena.

Once the two hours are up (no spoilers here as to whether or not they succeed), The Voice issues its third and final challenge, and it is this point that the movie unfortunately loses steam. Again, no spoilers, but the challenge removes the gray area element entirely, and so the final 20-25 minutes are just a series of chases and one on one fights of little interest. Director Greg McLean knows how to stage such things, but there's little suspense to the proceedings as the final challenge more or less tells you right from the start how the rest will play out. One major character's surprise (and brutally casual) death aside, there is little of the excitement or unnerving morality on display here - it's just typical survival of the fittest kind of stuff, and it almost starts to feel repetitive to boot. The script does eventually get around to revealing the face behind The Voice (it won't surprise anyone who read the credits, however, since they are listed at the top and you'd probably figure out once the killing starts that they're not playing a Belko employee), and the final shot is intriguing, but I can't help but wonder if the third challenge posed more of a dilemma for the characters that the movie wouldn't need to be "saved" by these last minute reveals.

Luckily, the actors are all appealing enough that the plot's wrong turn doesn't kill the whole movie. Gallagher follows his appealing turn in 10 Cloverfield Lane with an engaging everyman hero, and Emerald City's Adria Arjona as his girlfriend is quite charming as well - plus I quite like that Gunn's script has them already established as a couple rather than have them inexplicably fall in love as they try to survive this unusual day at work. Goldwyn is always a welcome presence, and years of TV work I was elated to see McGinley on the big screen again (the last thing I recalled seeing him in was Identity, a whopping fourteen years ago - though IMDb tells me he was also in Alex Cross, but alas I have no recollection of any of that movie, let alone his character). And as Gunn is involved it should be no surprise that Michael Rooker is also in the cast, as the building's maintenance man whose role in the proceedings should come as a fun surprise to those who are used to his villainous roles over the years. Then there are a number of recognizable character actors like David Dastmalchian, Rusty Schwimmer, and Brent Sexton filling out the supporting cast - there are very few totally anonymous characters. And that's one of the movie's strengths for sure; Gunn and McLean could have pared the cast down and made it more of an ensemble that made it less obvious who would last longer, but instead they managed to pretty much supply at least some semblance of an identity to just about every one of the eighty Belko employees, so that when someone is offed you are usually at least somewhat familiar with who they were.

So while it's a shame that they don't stick the landing, it's still one of those solid "What would I do in this situation" kind of genre movies, and if not for Get Out it would be rank as one of the most original ones we've gotten in our multiplexes for a while. The premise may be somewhat ludicrous (Gunn says he based it on a dream he had), but the pacing is breakneck enough to not allow you much time to think about the logistics and plausibility, and I'll take that over the umpteenth supernatural/possession movie that we seem to get every other week lately (such as The Darkness, McLean's last film which almost had me writing him off forever). But I sure would be a lot more excited about it if someone jumped at the chance to murder the guy in the adjacent cubicle as revenge for years of stinky takeout fumes wafting over their shared wall.

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