As a movie, “The Belko Experiment” prompts the same questions that the experiment it depicts would. What was the purpose here? What were you trying to prove? Do you maybe just enjoy torturing and killing people and wanted to cover your bloodlust with a thin veneer of social science?
In this bleakly pointless film, directed by Greg McLean (“Wolf Creek,” “The Darkness”), 80 American employees of nondescript international corporation Belko Industries arrive at their Bogota, Colombia, headquarters one morning to find things in a state of agitation. There are new, unfamiliar security guards in addition to friendly, rotund Evan (James Earl) at the front desk. The non-American employees — the locals — have been sent home. We see all this through the eyes of a young woman named Dany (Melodie Diaz), her first day on the job. We assume Dany is the main character, but it turns out she is insignificant and the movie only followed her for a few minutes because it needed an excuse to have the head of H.R. dump some exposition on us.
Anyway, wouldn’t you know it, first day on the job and already Dani’s bosses are playing murder games! Without warning, the several-story building goes into lockdown and an unseen voice (Gregg Henry) starts ordering the employees to kill each other. Choose two of you among yourselves and murder them, or else we’ll murder four of you, that sort of thing. It is established that the captors have audio and video surveillance throughout the building, and that they have the means of executing hostages remotely. (Employment tip: even in a down economy, do not take a job that requires the implantation of a tracking chip.)
Good guy Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) — the actual main character — takes a firm no-murder-no-matter-what stance. Barry (Tony Goldwyn), the craven C.O.O., is more pragmatic, saying maybe they should go ahead and take a few lives if it will save more. Things escalate quickly and nastily as preexisting intra-office conflicts come to a head. For example, Mike’s girlfriend, Leandra (Adria Arjona), is always being leered at by fellow employee Wendell (John C. McGinley), who can’t take a hint and is emboldened by the current circumstances.
The screenplay is by James Gunn, written before he found superstardom as writer-director of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But it’s devoid of his usual wit, as also found in “Slither” and even the questionable “Super,” and director McLean misses every opportunity for dark comedy, social commentary, or psychological horror. Is this about haves vs. have-nots? America’s corporate presence in foreign countries? Nah, nothing like that. Does it explore the psychological effects of being trapped in a building and told to kill your co-workers, or examine the intricacies of moral dilemmas? Nope. (A few people crack up under the pressure, but not in realistic ways.)
No, Gunn and McLean are only interested in tormenting 80 nameless strangers in the service of a story that hints at a larger mythology but fails to develop it. With no subtext or style to justify it, the film is as cruelly nihilistic as its fictional experimenters are.
D (1 hr., 28 min.; )