A game-of-death entry into the developing subgenre of workplace horror films, The Belko Experiment sees director Greg McLean leave behind the serial-killer turf of his Wolf Creek franchise for a scenario in which just about everyone will wind up with blood on his hands. The “experiment” in question, in which office workers are locked up and told they must choose co-workers to kill, is ripe for satire, but McLean (using a script by Guardians of the Galaxy writer-director James Gunn) mostly forgoes such opportunities in favor of vicious, mostly satisfying action. Genre fans will be appreciative, but mainstream appeal is limited.
Belko appears to be an organization helping American companies outsource jobs to South America. With offices near Bogota, Colombia, it’s unsurprising the corporation takes rather extreme security precautions, going so far as to plant tracking devices under each employee’s skin in case of kidnapping.
But those implants aren’t tracking devices. They’re tiny bombs, like the one used to keep Kurt Russell in line during 1981’s Escape From New York, and Belko’s staff is about to learn that the ugly way. Early one morning, heavy steel shutters roll down over the entire building, and a voice on the office PA announces that a game has begun. The 80 people inside are to choose two people to kill within half an hour. If they don’t, four will die via those little head-grenades.
After some startling violence provides proof that this isn’t a prank, workers break roughly into two camps: Those looking for a way to escape this fiendishness, led by John Gallagher, Jr.’s nice-guy Mike; and those who figure they have no choice, and make themselves arbiters of who’s most expendable. No surprise, the latter group hails mostly from the executive suite, following the military-trained exec Barry (Tony Goldwyn).
Without hinting about his intentions, the unseen captor (monitoring the group through security cameras) soon raises the stakes, forcing colleagues to reevaluate each other and form the usual Lord of the Flies alliances. Given a cast of this size, characterizations are predictably thin, though strong character actors like John C. McGinley and Michael Rooker ensure some viewer engagement with Those About to Die.
While a few actors are conspicuously underused (Melonie Diaz, for instance), Gallagher gets the lion’s share of screen time, playing the audience’s surrogate as he struggles to find a decent way to behave in this no-win scenario. Good luck with that, sir: Though it isn’t as inventive in the means-of-death department as one might wish, Belko Experiment soon ensures that anyone hoping to live will have to kill at least one person, and likely many more, to do it.
Production companies: Troll Court, Safran Co.
Distributors: Orion Pictures, BH Tilt
Cast: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, Melonie Diaz, Abraham Benrubi, David Dastmalchian, Owain Yeoman, Brent Sexton, Mikaela Hoover, Rusty Schwimmer, David Del Rio, James Earl, Maruia Shelton, Gail Bean, Joe Fria, Stephen Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Valentine Miele
Director: Greg McLean
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Producers: James Gunn, Peter Safran
Executive producer: Jason Blum
Director of photography: Luis David Sansans
Production designer: Carlos Osorio
Editor: Julia Wong
Composer: Tyler Bates
Casting directors: Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu
Rated R, 88 minutes