“Mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones…but there are.” – Newt, Aliens (1986).
Sometimes the scariest movie monsters are the ones that require absolutely no makeup or Hollywood special effects. Most horror movies boil down to a fear of one another, but The Belko Experiment totally cuts out the middle-man. No ghosts, which are just ex-people. No monsters built by a mad scientist or Demons release by a power-hungry sorcerer. It’s people. Average people trying to go about their lives and get home to the people that care about them. The plot isn’t perfect, but I thought it was very sharp. James Gunn’s dialogue is great, and most of all, this movie makes you feel horror. It gets a reaction and it’s not easily shaken while the movie is rolling. The corporate safe-for-work environment makes it that much more chilling to see each character’s violent demise (and it is violent!). Now, I will have some spoilers in here, but I’ll mark the top of any paragraphs with major plot points if you want to skate around them. However, I just have to talk about the paradigm-shift in this film.
Human beings are the most dangerous creature that we have ever encountered. We are so deadly that almost every other one-time apex predator is now nearing extinction. In horror movies, the monsters are normally just a medium for dangerous antagonists. Sure, the Aliens were dangerous, but they were no match for Burke. He sent the colonists out after the ship with no warning, as well as attempting to sentence Ripley and a child to a horrible death. In Jaws, the mayor’s refusal to face the reality of the situation killed several people. That was probably the easiest horror movie to avoid: get people out of the water. Zero-percent of shark attacks happen at the International House of Pancakes, that’s all I’m saying. The Belko Experiment takes the decorations down and takes a good hard look at how dangerous we can be to each other.
The brief version is that Belko’s employees arrive at work to heightened security, which turns away select employees. As they go about their morning routines little changes are picked up by the characters. Just as they begin to realize that something is wrong the building seals itself shut and a voice comes over the loudspeaker instructing them to kill two people of the eighty in the building. It promises dire consequences if all orders are not followed. As they say: “Let the games begin!”
It was great to see some old faces that haven’t seen a lot of screen time recently pick it right back up. Almost no big names were used, giving you no real idea of who might survive, or what role they would play throughout. John C. McGinley took it way back to his selfish and cowardly character from Platoon, with a creepy-coworker twist. Michael Rooker appears, and finally is not playing a racist, rapist, prison inmate or abusive father. You cannot count on anyone to survive, but you can count on the brutality of their demise. There is no “good” outcome for any of the characters, but that’s always been something horror movies need to address, in my opinion.
It’s an American horror staple that the evil be defeated, so plot devices are laid across the tracks for the characters to stumble upon and defeat Freddie, Jason or the Predator. All of this is tried by the characters. Reasoning who would do this to them or why. Trying to gauge the capabilities of the enemy. Ultimately it all gives way to the fact that there is no way out of this situation for these poor cubicle-moles. One character attempts to cut off the Voice’s control over him, only to be caught on camera. Hurried frantic whispers paint conspiracies around the government of the US, or the government of Columbia (where the story takes place). One character even decides that he just was having a hallucinatory flashback. All of these side stories eventually buckle when the immediate situation gets too dangerous to worry about the who or why of the situation.
I would put this in a category I call “Film-as-literature”. Don’t worry, what the name lacks in imagination, the definition makes up for with dryness and vagueness. What I mean is a film that uses surreal elements to tell us something about ourselves. It’s present in almost any movie, but a few movies, like this one, are wall-to-wall allegory. Another excellent version of this is the Canadian film Cube, which shares many elements with The Belko Experiment. However, because they are using such extreme contrasts, there are some plot holes. It can’t be helped.
For one, there’s a British family man who falls in with a group that happens on a secret stash of semi-automatic pistols. Well, if he is British, where handguns are strictly illegal and not even carried by police officers, how does he know how to operate the weapon? Operating a firearm is not at all easy, despite what you may have heard. To hit anything smaller than a doorway from ten yards away would be amazing. So, the several headshots he makes had me scratching the o’l noggin. These kinds of little things are everywhere, and it’s okay. It’s the willful suspense of disbelief. The big danger is that with so many identifiable roles, you will likely project into a character and then two minutes later say “Nah, I wouldn’t do that, that’s stupid!”
Now, I will say that I had one issue that infuriated me: The second phase of the game stated that they must execute thirty people, or sixty will be killed at random. As expected, the group divided into a few predators willing to murder a few employees to save the rest, the idealists who will entertain any option except following the orders of the nameless voice and sheep cowering in between them. The only people who are specifically mentioned as military veterans (Special Forces, no less) are the office’s head-honcho Barry, and his testoster-iffic sidekick, Dell. They are the group “okay” with murdering their coworkers. Meanwhile, the liberal hipster-dude protagonist tries to thwart them at every opportunity.
Now, my knee-jerk reaction was that this is a backwards spectrum, done solely to make Barry’s group more dangerous for the plot. I get it. However, I’ve known several Special Warfare Operators, and I’ve known several hipsters. Special Forces are believers, through and through. They believe that their place is between the civilians and the danger. Yet in the movie, not a single one stepped up to take the place of the condemned. There are documented cases of service-members jumping onto live grenades, knowing they could not possibly survive, to save others. In short, I could see some of the vets going one way and others another. We are human, like anyone. Certainly not a Special Forces door-kicker, though. Nor would someone who’s trained for decades to parachute into enemy territory feel that his family couldn’t cope without him. If he was SF, then they were very used to the idea of sudden-onset single parenting.
Two hours into fuming about this point last night, I thought of every urban action movie with a black antagonist. Every latino actor under twenty-five who cannot land a role that doesn’t require a bandana. Well, reality is a big shit sandwich and this time it was white veteran’s turn to take a bite. C’est la vie! Once I got over that, something struck me about the roles as I just described them: I had them backwards! The hipster protagonist wasn’t trying to save lives, he was avoiding facing the reality at all costs. Some would say that the curse of the liberal is a heart bigger than their resources. The veteran’s leader, Barry, took it on himself to execute the majority of people….so that no one else would have to live with it.
Holy Bat-shit, Robin! We have layers! God, I was angry at James Gunn, who is famous for Lone Survivor among many other hits. I was upset because I thought he missed the mark and misrepresented veterans for the sake of a scary plot. Not that it’s his responsibility to please me, he’s trying to reach a lot of people, and damned if he didn’t hit with some powerful stuff. When you stop and think about the different ways to sacrifice in a horrible situation, the depth to what is really going on are amazing. After the second phase ends, the final phase begins: The person with the most kills survives. So, in the end, everyone’s efforts to save anyone were in vain. As Barry is dying, his last words to Mike are “You didn’t change anything.” To which he replies “Neither did you.” What a moment. It’s got a very “liberal versus conservative” feel. Both see the problem, one has idealistic solutions, the other wants to cut right into the meat of it and neither of them saved anyone because they could not see eye to eye. Maybe I pulled that out of my own head, because of the recent headlines, but I thought it was great.
END OF SPOILERS
A fantastic horror film, with likeable people, good dialogue and great pacing. I feel like this might have been a passion project for writer James Gunn, and if so, bravo! You out Eli Roth-ed Eli Roth. The dialogue is believable and the reactions are mostly reasonable. I’m a veteran and I have seen people under life and death stress and this seems to fit. I would have liked to see veterans spread out, or nodded to on both sides of the debate, but instead I got a firsthand lesson in white privilege. I really think this film stands tall, and changes the horror game. Probably Orion pictures biggest, and only film since Short Circuit 2 (okay, I know that that wasn’t their last movie, but it’s been so long since I saw Orion’s credit that I can’t think of any others right now). So my advice is to go see it, but definitely leave the wee ones at home.