With plenty of gore and not much to think about - however much Gregg McLean, James Gunn and their crew want you to think there is - don't take this one too seriously. It's harder to laugh at the totally enGROSSing twists and turns if you do.
Well at least American Psycho came lumped with foundational satire, and I guess Saw never pretended to be anything more than the blundering torture smut it evolved into. And, well, The Hunger Games couldn’t have ever gotten too firm a grasp on either, but it did well thematically. It seemed a little bizarre to be thinking more about anything other than The Belko Experiment upon leaving a press screening of James Gunn’s latest written effort (the name behind Guardians of the Galaxy, no less), but it can hardly be said that what he’s splattered upon our screens (I wish I was being less literal) now reeks of anything nearing originality. In fact, the only thing that can be called cutting edge about the film is its incessant urge to push the faces of its audience further into the deskinned guts and scrambled cerebellums of its ballooning body-count, in what I can only hope is an attempt to concoct a well-meaning blend of American Psycho’s numbing violent satire and the creepy ‘wow look at all the different ways one person can kill another’ kind of fun that remains completely disembodied from the former. The two, perhaps with the exception of Battle Royale which has much the same concept, are mutually exclusive, leaving The Belko Experiment in a bit of a pickle. And whilst the less averse to gore might get a kick out of the film’s second and third act, its approach to anything that can be labelled as ‘satire’ lampoons the very attempts it makes.
The film’s comparisons to James Wan’s Saw are threefold. Firstly, we’re faced with a group of people pitted against each other upon the instruction of an unseeable voice who gives them an ultimatum: kill or be killed. Unsurprisingly, the dominating faces of the pack choose to face the harder truths of Darwinism and decide to get on with the killin’ and murderin’. Secondly, the gore. A quick disclaimer, no one gets their ankle sawed off, but there are a few worthy comparisons. And with the workforce hitting forty times the amount of endangered characters in Saw (Belko is adamant in reinforcing the eighty lives in danger at various intervals – yes! We get it! A lot of people have died and now I’m numb to whatever ways you’ll be swiftly killing off the next dozen! Bring it on, I say! Fantastic!) by sheer visible bloodshed alone Belko is wildly championed. Lastly, lest we accuse Saw of boasting anything admirable other than the stupefying twists that acted as the attestation for each cinema-goer to turn right back around six months later when the next one came out, and if Belko’s twist – yes there’s a twist – had been a little more competently established and a lot less rushed, the same could perhaps be said of it too. Unfortunately, The Belko Experiment is about as clever and ironic as a B-side of Alanis Morissette’s mid-nineties hit record. Juvenile violence thinly disguised as satire doesn’t even come close. It’s honestly the biggest pain in the backside of my week to think that what could have been so ingenious, and biting, and good, was just, well, not.
But that doesn’t make it any less fun, thank goodness. There’s a lot to be learned from The Belko Experiment’s entertainment factor, even if a few of the laughs come from the mindnumbingly relentless slaughters by the time the third act rolls around. With a few genuine thrills, and so little characterization that it’s hard to feel too bad for too long about sniggering at the slow-mo, classical-music dubbed, blood-fest where heads are exploding left, right and center leaving an incredulous few from the original 80 (think Kingsman: The Secret Service but less cartoonish), it’s actually quite riveting, in its moments. And it may stink of genericism, but Belko sure smells it too, and is prepared to do anything its genre encourages to keep those ticket-sales rolling in. Character stereotypes? Got ‘em in droves – complete with the stoner-guy grafted straight from the 80s slasher who’s just totally not into this shit, man. Quirky ‘every-man-for-himself’ scene set to drastically discordant music? Check, and check again. A personal favorite would have to be the sequence near the film’s opening in which the various workers wander into the office, hitting each other up with muted ‘good mornings’ and ‘look who it is’s, set to a Spanish rendition of ‘I Will Survive’.
Well, alright then – at least they tried to be ironic.
Nevertheless, there are some genuinely harrowing scenes which feel like the base of what director Gregg McLean and writer James Gunn were trying to get at. A scene disturbingly reminiscent of the horrors of Auschwitz’s extermination tactics (‘everyone with kids under 18 over that side, everyone aged 60 and over head to the other side’) is bloodcurdling even now. But with some killer lines like “It’s like his head exploded from the inside!” and “Don’t tell me that I don’t know how to use a fucking axe, man!” it’s hard to take the grand majority of Belko all too seriously. Which is okay – with a little less seething gore, this would be quite the entertaining horror. Perhaps, though, we should give more credit to creative committee behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe for making James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy such a family-friendly romp – there’s really quite the difference between the two.
The Belko Experiment, directed by Gregg McLean, is distributed in the UK by Orion Pictures. Certificate 18.