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D: Greg McLean / 89m

Cast: John Gallagher Jr, Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeaman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker

On the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia, Belko Industries has an office building where its mostly American, relocated staff, help other American companies set up in South America. The office building has been open for a year, and the eighty American staff that work there have what are called “trackers” implanted in the back of their heads in case of kidnappings. If any member of staff is kidnapped, these “trackers” will make them easy to find and rescue. One day, Mike Milch (Gallagher Jr), a Belko employee, arrives to find the local Colombians who work there are being sent home, and this is being overseen by a group of security guards Milch has never seen before. Inside the building, Evan (Earl), the building security guard, admits he doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither does anyone else, not even the COO, Barry Norris (Goldwyn).

While the staff talk over this strange development, new starter Dany Wilkins (Diaz) begins her first day, while Norris’s assistant, Leandra Jerez (Arjona), bemoans the unwanted attention of colleague Wendell Dukes (McGinley). Unwanted because he won’t take no for an answer, and also because she’s in a relationship with Milch. As the rest of the morning gets under way, a tannoy announcement heard throughout the building informs everyone that unless two people are killed in the next thirty minutes then more people will die as a consequence. No one takes the announcement too seriously, even when shutters come down that seal everyone inside the building (though the roof remains accessible). When no one is killed, four people die when the “trackers” in their heads explode.

Realising the danger from the “trackers”, Milch tries to remove his but the voice from the tannoy announcement starts a countdown to its being detonated. Milch stops, and the next time the voice gives instructions they’re even more chilling than the last: unless thirty people are killed in the next two hours, sixty people will be killed just as randomly as the previous four. From this, two distinct factions form amongst the employees: those who, like Milch, think no one should be killed (and an alternative solution found to their predicament), and those who, like Norris, think that thirty deaths is better than sixty. What follows pits employee against employee, and engenders a complete breakdown of morality and compassion.

Working from an old script by James Gunn, The Belko Experiment – to paraphrase the title of a Werner Herzog movie – could almost be called James Gunn, James Gunn, What Have Ye Done. While the basic premise is sound, here the “execution” is less than satisfactory, as the finished product lacks clarity, subtlety, and is only consistent in its lack of clarity and subtlety. If Gunn was attempting to write a straightforward schlock horror movie combining equally straightforward ideas regarding the erosion of social and moral restraints in a highly charged atmosphere, then in one sense that’s what he’s done. But if that is the case, and though much of that approach to the material is still in place, director Greg McLean’s interpretation still leaves a lot to be desired.

Following on from the dreadful outing that was The Darkness (2016), McLean makes only partial amends with this, focusing his efforts too quickly on getting to the kind of indiscriminate carnage that is the movie’s raison d’etre. Forget social commentary, forget a knowing critique of office politics, this is all about seeing how fast a group of (apparently) average people can descend into homicidal rage and leave rational thinking behind. On that basis alone the movie is more successful (the answer is quicker than you can say “exploding head”). But once all the niceties are done and dusted, and we get to know who’s going to be a hawk and who’s going to be a dove, then it’s on with the murky motivations and desperate attempts at credibility.

It’s always problematical when you have characters such as Milch proclaiming that no one should be killed, and then, by the movie’s end he’s on a par with psycho colleagues Norris and Dukes in terms of how many people he’s despatched. It’s not addressed because it doesn’t suit the needs of the movie, and yet if it had, it would have gone some way towards giving the movie some much needed depth. As it is, Milch takes to murdering his colleagues with as much gusto as he can manage, and any blurring of the lines that was intended on the part of the script is forsaken in favour of more killing. But with the body count rising, the movie feels rushed and even more implausible, and the problem of killing off the remaining seventy-six employees becomes more important than any moral considerations.

It could be argued that to expect any depth in a movie that’s only concerned with coming up with as many inventive deaths as it can in ninety minutes (death by tape dispenser anyone?), is something of a fool’s errand, but The Belko Experiment also lacks style and wastes its talented cast. Saddled with woefully underwritten characters who practically scream “stock!” every time they speak, the likes of Gallagher Jr, Goldwyn and Arjona get to mouth platitudes and banalities at every turn. Spare a thought for McGinley though; his character is so relentlessly one dimensional it’s amazing he doesn’t disappear when he turns to the side. There’s no one to care about – surprise, surprise – and as the movie progresses, the average viewer might feel justified in wanting to get inside the building and culling the employees themselves.

With its stock characters, muddled narrative, and laboured editing courtesy of Julia Wong, The Belko Experiment is unlikely to impress anyone but the most ardent gore fan. They’ll enjoy the numerous exploding heads, and one particularly impressive skull injury, but there’s really little else to recommend a movie that poses lots of questions at the beginning of the experiment, and then forgoes providing any answers. With a coda that attempts an explanation for what’s happened that’s as baffling as it is shallow, as well as shamelessly trying to set up a further movie, the movie should best be viewed as an old-style exploitation flick given a modern polish. However, that would be doing a disservice to old-style exploitation flicks.

Rating: 4/10 – insipid and unconvincing, The Belko Experiment is yet another nail in the coffin of Greg McLean’s directing career; it also acts as further proof that when successful writer/directors have old scripts to hand, they shouldn’t always be made into movies.