TIFF 2016 Review: The Belko Experiment

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TIFF 2016 Review: The Belko Experiment

James Gunn and Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment is a bloody, satirical slaughter-fest

You can perhaps blame The Purge franchise on the success of The Hunger Games, which in turn can be blamed on Battle Royale, which itself shares some of The Running Man’s DNA. But you can trace all of these allegorical societal comments back to William Golding’s 1954 post-apocalyptic novel Lord of the Flies (itself a bleak quote on the R.M. Ballantyne novel The Coral Island). In that upsetting and essential story (and the two film versions that stemmed from it), a group of uniformed British schoolboys survive a plane crash after a presumed nuclear attack and wind up stranded on a deserted island and immediately attempt to maintain order. Little Ralph and Piggy use a snail shell, a conch, to hold court and keep moral up, while the more power-hungry Jack organizes a band of hunters to forage for food. Scared and hungry, the other children begin creating paranoid myths of a “beast” that lives on the island and that needs blood sacrifices. As Ralph and Piggy try to maintain order, Jack reacts with savagery and the micro-society quickly descends into violence, madness and murder.

Lord of the Flies (and we can add Rod Serling’s Season One The Twilight Zone teleplay for “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to the list of the novel’s more famous descendants) is of course a comment on just how fragile our societal structure is and how, when superstition, fear and ignorance are added into the equation, that structure can quickly blow apart, revealing the true “beasts” that lie within our faux-civilized sheen. Wolf Creek director Greg McLean’s latest thriller, The Belko Experiment (written by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn), is yet another riff on the Golding tale and though we’ve seen these themes explored to death, especially as of late, they never seem to get tired. Here however, McLean gooses his commentary with outrageous amounts of graphic violence and spastic black comedy, running the somber allegory into the realm of splatter-toon. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

The movie stars John Gallagher Jr. as a nice corporate stiff working with a pack of American ex-pats in Columbia at the Belko Corporation, a high-security company that does God-knows-what. Not even the well-paid employees know what they do, really, and they don’t care. They sit in their cubicles day after day, shuffling papers, hitting on each other, drinking coffee and making after-work plans. You know, like real office employees do. They ask no questions of their reality, even when the Belko powers that be inject them with a microchip for “protection” purposes. Theirs is an idyllic life of routine and easy money until one morning, when a troupe of armed security personnel shows up and sends the locals home. With only the Americans at their desks, the building is suddenly encased in metal, shutting out the outside world and a voice murmurs on the intercom (“wait, we have an intercom?” says one confused employee) that unless three of them are dead in the next 30 minutes, the powers that be will kill them and then, kill 30 more in two hours, and so on. Grouping together in the lobby, the team convinces themselves it must all be a hoax; that is, until the half hour is up and heads start blowing apart, sending bone and brain all over the survivors’ screaming faces.

Soon, the office tower is split into “tribes” consisting of those who opt to follow the orders from the top and those who desperately try to hang on to whatever shreds of humanity they can.

You know, like real office employees do.

Gunn’s script is razor sharp and witty and McLean brings his gonzo, go-for-broke Australian “Ozploitation” sensibility to the violence. It doesn’t always work. The use of more operatic music during key massacres is cliché, the endless mayhem starts to overwhelm towards the end and the climax itself is a shameless set-up for a sequel. But these are minor quibbles. The Belko Experiment is a tight, over-the-top, smart, sometimes silly and hugely satisfying riff on the house that Golding built and it comes stacked with a great cast that includes Tony Goldwyn, Michael Rooker and John C. McGinley. If marketed right, the film could – and should – be a major hit.