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Front Page - Friday, March 24, 2017

‘Belko Experiment’ misses opportunities

The employees at Belko are having a bad day. Just as they were settling in to work, the intercom squawked and a man’s voice said most of them would soon die. To increase their odds of surviving, they’re going to have to kill their co-workers.

Given the gravity of the outcome, I think an office memo, distributed a week in advance, would have been appropriate.

Everyone believes it’s a prank. Then heavy sheets of metal lower across every window and exit, and the voice gives the Belko team an assignment: two people must be dead in 30 minutes or several more will be killed.

No one listens. An office seminar on complying with authority might have helped, but it’s too late for that, and half an hour later, heads begin to explode.

From that point on, the voice has everyone’s full attention. People, who less than an hour before  had greeted each other with a smile and a “good morning,” are now gunning for each other in a desperate bid to stay alive.

“The Belko Experiment” poses two questions: how quickly are humans reduced to animalistic behavior once backed into a corner, and how brutal will they get after their survival instinct kicks in?

According to the film, the answers are swiftly and horrifically.” With very little grace, “The Belko Experiment” quickly devolves into a gory cage match that would turn the stomach of the most heartless UFC fan.

It’s too bad the movie goes for the jugular instead of the brain. After “Get Out” successfully combined the building blocks of a good thriller with smart commentary about race relations, I went in to “The Belko Experiment” hoping for more.

But no. Unless the filmmakers are saying something about the dog-eat-dog nature of the corporate world, “The Belko Experiment” is devoid of metaphor. Only the scene in which a young woman gives her lecherous boss “the ax” offers anything deeper than a spray or spatter of blood. Beyond that, people die because the plot dictates it.

I suppose one solution would have been to kill the screenwriter, James Gunn, with the first group of victims. But then there would be no sequel to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” as Gunn is the writer and director of that series.

He must have poured all his wit and creativity into “Guardians” because his work in “The Belko Experiment” has none. Gunn even stole ideas from other movies, including “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale,” a Japanese film from which “The Hunger Games” drew inspiration.

Perhaps Gunn wrote “The Belko Experiment” as a palate cleanser between the “Guardians” movies. Whatever his reasons, he should have moved on to something else the moment he considered stealing from someone who had borrowed their ideas from someone else.

Gunn was spared, though. So was director Greg McLean, who must have thought he was filming a Syfy channel movie of the week, given how flat and cheap “The Belko Experiment” looks. If McLean has any cinematic sensibilities whatsoever, he suppressed them while making this film.

I can see someone enjoying “The Belko Experiment” simply for the base thrills it provides. Who’s going to die next? How bad will it be? What’s waiting for the survivor(s) at the end?

I had a hard time caring, primarily because I kept wondering why the characters weren’t more clever. When the chief operating officer, who becomes a de facto leader, starts weeding out the weak people after the voice demands 30 victims in two hours, I wondered why he didn’t go in the other direction. That would have benefitted him.

Then there were the missed opportunities. For example, when the voice tells the final group of survivors that the winner will be the survivor with the most kills, no one targets the people with the highest kill count. Hello?

I also thought “The Belko Experiment” could have benefitted from a touch of humanity. Maybe a husband could have offered to be shot to guarantee his wife’s safety, or a dying girlfriend could have let her boyfriend kill her before she bleeds out to increase his body count.

Instead, “The Belko Experiment” is an exercise in bleak nihilism. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just though a little balance was in order. I should have sent out a memo in advance.

The movie’s biggest shortcoming is the very thing that will keep most people watching: the ending. Too bad it isn’t worth the wait. When I found out what was behind everything that had happened, I thought, “That’s it??”

Like I said earlier, some people will enjoy “The Belko Experiment” on a purely visceral level. It also might help to put things in perspective after a bad day at work. But most viewers will appreciate getting this memo in advance: give this movie the ax.

1.5 stars out of 4