How low can humanity go?
For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).
Belko Industries is a company located in Bogata, Colombia. On a morning that begins like any other morning, the employees come to work, but they soon notice that the non-American employees are being sent home, and there is a heavier military presence outside the office building. Rumor has it that there has been some kind of bomb scare, which makes sense in this day and age, and so the 80 employees inside the office continue with business as usual.
Normalcy comes to a crashing halt when a voice announces over the intercom that unless the office workers kill two of their own, innocent people will die. The doors to the building then lock and metal shielding covers all the windows, effectively locking the 80 occupants inside, and cell phone service is also disrupted.
At first, everyone believes it’s a prank, and they rationalize that as long as they stay calm, nothing bad is going to happen. When the time limit comes and goes, the voice announces they have failed the first part of the test, and suddenly two people inside the office die as their heads explode. The workers discover that their co-workers were not killed by gunshot blasts but rather by explosions from within their skulls. They realize that they all have implants in the back of their necks, put there by the company as tracking devices in case they ever got kidnapped in the highly dangerous Colombian countryside. Now they understand that they all have bombs inside their bodies, and so they know that whoever is responsible for this horror can kill them with ease.
The voice on the intercom raises the stakes: unless they kill 30 people inside the building, the voice says 60 people will be killed, so they must kill 30 to save 30. The employees pretty much divide into two camps, one led by Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) who believes killing is wrong, and that they must use their energies to find a way to escape, and the other led by Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who with his military background believes that it is best in order to save 30 lives, to eliminate 30 lives.
I really enjoyed THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, not because it’s a highbrow thought-provoking drama, but because it’s a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end.
Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean. It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.
McLean crafts some very suspenseful scenes, the high point when Barry and his team round everyone up and decide to choose who will live and who will die. Then the power goes out, and all hell breaks loose.
James Gunn’s screenplay presents the perfect set-up for a thriller and then executes it brilliantly. Sure, the characters aren’t as fleshed out as one might want, but this movie is a rare instance where I didn’t mind the lack of character development. The characters are all terrified, and knowing that they could die at any moment, was enough for me. They become instantly sympathetic because their lives are in danger.
I wasn’t nuts about the ending. It’s not weak enough to sink the movie, but it is certainly not the film’s best part. It’s inevitable with a story like this that you want to know who is responsible and why, and I don’t think the answers provided here were anything special. The ending just isn’t as satisfying as all that came before it.
Other than the strong screenplay, the best part of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the acting.
John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as Mike Milch. He makes Mike a very likeable character who’s easy to route for. He also cares for his co-workers and values their lives, which is something some of the others quickly forget. Gallagher Jr. was also in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he was also very good, and he starred as the masked killer in the horror movie HUSH (2016).
Equally as good as Gallagher Jr. is Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris. Goldwyn plays Norris as a three-dimensional character, not just a cardboard cutout. While Norris sees himself as the man most qualified to both choose who lives and dies and then to be the one to pull the trigger at the executions, when the time arrives for him to do this, you can see the pain on his face. The horror of what he is doing is not lost on him.
Adria Arjona also stands out as Mike’s co-worker and girlfriend Leandra.
John C. McGinley, probably most known for his role as Dr. Cox on the TV comedy series SCRUBS (2001-2010), but I always remember him for his outstanding portrayal as serial killer Edgler Vess in INTENSITY (1997), is excellent here as the unhinged Wendell Dukes, a role I could easily have seen Bruce Dern play back in his heyday.
The rest of the cast is also very good.
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point. It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie.
In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies. And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture that feeling of the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the third straight above average horror movie I’ve seen in 2017, following A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) and GET OUT (2017). All three of these films have featured a fresh story that hasn’t relied on clichéd material. Even better, all three films have been well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.
2017 so far has been an excellent year for horror movies.
THE BELKO EXPERIMENT continues this trend.
It’s a relentlessly intense thriller that will have you squirming in your seat. For a horror fan, you can’t ask for much more than that.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.