When I first saw Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, it was a violent international scandal film du
jour, a B-movie with some great scenes. Over the years through repeat viewings it's become my
favorite blackhearted satire. The world is dog-eat-dog, and the Japanese students forced to kill
each other on an island run at an accelerated pace into it. One critical interpretation that always
stuck with me was that the film (and novel and manga) was specifically a parody of competitive
college placement exams in Japan. Culture and government force the children to turn on each
other to compete for resources, and the movie is darkly funny and sad in how it presents this as
The Belko Experiment is another entry in the slice-of-humanity-forced-to-murder-one-another
genre, written by James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean. Without James Gunn at the helm to
direct his writing (he planned to and backed out at the last minute, citing divorce), it lacks the
personality and warmth he often gives his creations. Its cynicism is a little more regular, less weird.
When a shooting is underscored by California Dreaming, a fight to death by an automated
business spiel, and gore shots' punchlines are corporate placards and dogs pissing on fences, it's
not a new frisson. It's a familiar old-hat jaundiced eye.
Our stage is set well. A multinational corporation has situated a number of its workers in a
heavily secured office building on the outskirts of Bogotá, Columbia. They are familiar types,
including a new girl (Melonie Diaz), a sensitive guy (John Gallagher, Jr.), a smooth executive
(Tony Goldwyn), and a boorish cretin (John C. McGinley). To prevent kidnapping for ransom, they
all have GPS trackers in the back of their heads. One day all the local workers don't show up, and
there are more security forces than usual. Those forces congregate in a rusty shack which sits just
opposite the gleaming new corporate building.
Suddenly they are locked in and a loudspeaker announces they must kill each other or their
heads will explode, courtesy of the GPS chips. The movie successfully frightened me. I could
barely watch ordinary scenes of people talking, because I was afraid they would just combust mid-
sentence, which they sometimes did. Battle Royale had similar exploding neck bracelets, and long
before that I was terrified as a child by the atrocious Rutger Hauer-Mimi Rogers movie Wedlock,
which upon rewatch as an adult is about as scary as a schnauzer. Like Scanners, the fear of a
sudden exploding noggin really sells what horror movies often do: the human body is fragile, and
can go at any time.
In Royale it seems the students kill each other not just because the rules of the game force
them to, but because they're inexperienced at controlling passions and resentments bubbling over
from their interactions as classmates. Here the murders are more standard. They ultimately
demonstrate the blunt power of the absent corporate masters more than highlighting
the strange sadism of a culture (which Takeshi Kitano personifies in the film I'm overpraising). I
wanted the complication of a diverse group dividing my sympathies, but (as Royale does too)
everyone pares down into heroes and villains. There is an attempt at a Ned Starkian reversal that
doesn’t land. The characters are too operated on by the company, too helpless before it.
On a satirical level The Belko Experiment could be saying that multinationals use people as pawns
and playthings, but it makes that point with less and less nuance, and a Psycho-like explanation at
the end. The explanation is purposefully silly and weak, so much so that the film would be stronger
Good about the script is the pervading sense that the Belko Corporation's employees are
being punished for ignoring the poor people of Colombia. They seem like regular office workers
who have turned a blind eye to everything outside their tiny steel building. You don’t have to go to
Colombia to feel guilty. It is not in the nature of most of the cubicles I was ever in to focus on the
world outside. Here fictionally you can both have sympathy for the characters and distance
yourself from their merciless slaughter: surely you wouldn't accept such a high level of inequality all
around you. (Cough, cough.)
John Gallagher Jr.'s hero displays quiet conviction, as he did in 10 Cloverfield Lane. But character
and comedic actors including McGinley, Michael Rooker, Brent Sexton, Abraham Benrubi and
Gunn's brother Sean never get material that really lets them sing.
What this film and others like it posit that man is truly a wolf to a man, with the subtext that
being openly wolfish is a letting down of the guard, a freak flag flying. But the freedom is only ours,
to watch. It's nicely encapsulated early on by a knowing shot of an ant farm. I would have engaged
with the movie more had the directions it had taken been more unexpected. There's an argument
which I might misremember from a Bertrand Russell quote, that humans are not so much violent as
they are endlessly conditionable: they can be brought up to think of
murder as normal or awful, depending on its context. Here for example, I didn’t have enough
laughter to distance me from the shots of smashed-in faces and unnatural cavities. Dress it up in
more satire or stranger clothing, and I would cheer these facsimiles of death on.
Film Review: The Belko Experiment
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Director: Greg McLean
Starring: Tony Goldwyn, John Gallagher, Sean Gunn, Adrea Arjona, Melonie Diaz