It’s become a familiar format: Civilians are placed in a controlled environment where they are compelled by a Big Brother-type to kill each other or be killed themselves. The variable is always the why.
In “The Belko Experiment,” the why turns out to be social science, much like the 1961 Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, which explored individual willingness to go against personal moral conscience in obeying commands. “The Belko Experiment” is an extremely gory and violent take on research of that kind.
Director Greg McLean’s film finds a group of 80 employees, mostly American, working at a Colombian recruiting firm. There are the standard office friendships, tensions and romances, which are thrown into stark relief when impenetrable metal shutters come down and an ominous voice over a loudspeaker instructs the group to kill each other or be killed themselves. The “game,” if you will, involves impossible ethical questions about whether to kill a certain number of innocent people in order to save a larger group of innocent people.
No one here is getting saved, though. Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) is the first to pick up on that. His boss (Tony Goldwyn) insists on following the instructions, out of some deference to authority or hope that the ominous voice might actually let them survive. His actions unleash a torrent of violent chaos in the building, as the employees descend into barbarism.
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Despite cutesy Spanish-language covers of American songs playing on the radio, the proceedings are relentlessly grim and violent. The sadism enacted on screen is directed at the audience, battering us with horrific, deadening images. Soon every surface is slick with blood.
Most films of this ilk aren’t contained to a single location — they take place outside, so there are opportunities for suspense and individual confrontations that draw out the intimate nature of this terrible exercise. Confined to a sterile office space, “The Belko Experiment” descends into a meaningless orgy of murder. By the end of the film, you’re left with the unshakable feeling that that everyone involved, from actors to filmmakers to audience, should have been better than material like this.
“The Belko Experiment”
Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use. 1:28. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.