How far would you go if all you had to do was follow orders? That is the question posed by The Belko Experiment.
A violent and disturbingly plausible social satire/horror film, The Belko Experiment was released into theaters on March 17th. It was one of the best films of the first half of 2017 but, as so often happens whenever a genre film subverts the traditional narrative, The Belko Experiment is also one of the most overlooked films of 2017. It got mixed reviews, with most critics focusing on the fact that the script was written by James Gunn. (Though Gunn may be best known for directing Guardians of the Galaxy, his non-MCU work has always been distinguished by a subversive, often transgressive sensibility.) A few critics dismissed it as being just another lurid celebration of violence, showing once again that you can always count on certain mainstream critics to unfairly categorize any film that doesn’t neatly fit into their preconceptions. Yes, The Belko Experiment is violent. And yes, it is gory and sometimes hard to watch. However, to dismiss The Belko Experiment as merely being that latest entry in the torture porn genre is to totally miss the point.
Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) is one of the many employees of Belko Industries. He’s a nice enough guy. In fact, if I worked for Belko Industries, Mike would probably be one of my favorite co-workers. He’s friendly. He’s funny. He’s not unattractive. He’s kind of a less smirky version of The Office‘s Jim Halpert. I’d want to be his friend. Since Belko’s offices are located in a remote area of Colombia, I would want to make all the friends that I could.
(Early on in the film, we’re informed that every employee of Belko Industries has been required to get a tracking device implanted at the base of their skull. They’re told that this is because there’s always the risk that one of them will be kidnapped by drug traffickers. Of course, as the film plays out, we discover that it’s actually for a totally different reason.)
When The Belko Experiment begins, it’s a day like any other. People show up for work. Some people actually do work. Some people slack off. Everyone tries to look busy whenever the boss, Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), wanders by. The maintenance workers (Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian) do their thing. A few employees sneak up to the roof of the office building and get high. Everyone tries to avoid Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinely), a pervy executive. The security guard (James Earl) watches the door. The newest employee (Melonie Diaz) learns about her new job and coworkers.
Of course, there are a few strange things. Some new security guards have shown up and they don’t appear to be particularly friendly. They turn away all of the locals who work at the office, only allowing in the American employees. Everyone agrees that it’s strange but, instead of thinking about it too much, they just keep going about their day.
Then, the steel shutters slam down, effectively sealing the building off.
Then a voice (Gregg Henry) demands that they select two co-workers to die. When the employees of Belko Industries refuse (with several dismissing the whole thing as being a tasteless prank), tracking devices start to randomly explode until four employees are dead. The voice goes on to say that, unless 30 employees are killed in the next two hours, 60 people will be randomly killed…
Some of the co-workers refuse to kill their friends but many more do not. And soon, even those who refused to take part in the murders, are forced to start killing just to keep from being killed themselves…
The Belko Experiment wastes no time in establishing that anyone can die at any moment. It doesn’t matter how funny you were a few seconds ago or how likable you may be. If the unseen voice decides to flip your switch, that “tracking device” will explode and it’ll take your head with it. And, even if the unseen voice doesn’t get you, your coworkers might.
That, by itself, would be disturbing enough. However, The Belko Experiment ultimately succeeds as a work of horror because it illustrates a truth that many people would prefer to ignore. When the employees of Belko Industries start to kill each other, it feels all too plausible. Culturally, human beings are conditioned to follow orders. We like to have an authoritarian around to tell us what to do. It’s a good way of avoiding responsibility for our own actions. (“I was following orders.” “I was following protocol.” “I’m just doing my job.”) As The Belko Experiment demonstrates, most people would never dream of hurting someone else … unless they were ordered to do so. The characters in The Belko Experiment start the movie as individuals but, as the experiment unfolds, all quirks and differences vanish. All that is left are drones who slavishly do what they’re told.
Making the nightmare scenario feel all the more believable is a large and strong cast of familiar faces. As the closest thing that this film has to a hero, John Gallagher, Jr. is likable and you find yourself hoping that he’ll somehow manage to survive all of this with his humanity intact. Tony Goldwyn brings some interesting shades to his role while John C. McGinley is memorably creepy as Wendell. Micheal Rooker, Abraham Benrubi, Sean Gunn, Josh Brener, Melonie Diaz, Brent Sexton, and Adria Arjone all shine in smaller roles. To be honest, you really don’t want to see any of these people suffer, which makes their inevitable fate all the more disturbing.
The Belko Experiment is ultimately a portrait of how easily people can be persuaded (or ordered) to surrender their humanity. It’s the exact mentality that we currently see everyday, with people willingly becoming slaves to one ideology or another and then tossing around terms like “treason” whenever anyone dares to do something other than obey. It’s the exact mentality that leads to people accusing you of being “selfish” when you refuse to surrender your right to self-determination. Our real-life Belko Experiment has been going on for several years now and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. This movie is frightening because it’s real.