In the tradition of “Battle Royale” and “You’re Next,” “The Belko Experiment” offers the cheerfully mean-spirited spectacle of an ever-decreasing number of trapped people killing each other lest they be killed. This elaborate elimination process, of employees in a Colombian corporate high-rise, represents director Greg McLean’s best work since his debut feature “Wolf Creek,” as well as a long-aborning pet project for scenarist/producer James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). It should delight bloodthirstier genre fans in various formats and markets, with Orion Releasing and BH Tilt partnering to claim U.S. theatrical rights the day after the pic’s Toronto midnight premiere. The distributors plan to open the movie on 1,000 U.S. screens in March.
It’s not exactly clear what Belko Corp. does, even to those who work there, though we’re told it’s a “nonprofit organization that facilitates American companies in South America in the hiring of American workers.” For most, it’s just a job, until a day that begins oddly with some extra-rigid security at the company HQ, well outside Bogota city limits, with any local hires being summarily sent home.
Only mild-mannered middle manager Mike (John Gallagher, Jr.), who’s having an in-house romance with the sparky Leandra (Adria Arjona), notices anything amiss before the 80 people here suffer what at first seems (they hope) a tasteless “prank.” A voice over an intercom informs them: “In eight hours, most of you will be dead,” and advises that survival is possible only for those who follow each “directive” of the “game” that has now commenced. The first is that those present must kill two among themselves within 30 minutes, “or else.”
“Or else” turns out to be twice that number suddenly falling dead from apparent gunshots. But closer examination reveals that the dead are in fact snuffed by imploding devices that were implanted as an alleged security measure (in case of kidnapping) when each staffer was hired. Unknown forces are watching the captives’ every move via hidden cameras. There’s no escape: This “experiment” began with blowtorch-resistant metal shutters sealing off every exit door and window. Attempts to signal for help are discouraged by the site’s remoteness, and snipers fire when characters try to hang an SOS banner from the roof.
Once the full gravity of the situation dawns on them, those who are still breathing quickly reveal inner natures even they may not have guessed at — particularly once that intercom voice warns that 30 more must die in the next four hours, or (again) twice that number will go boom via remote control. Mike assumes Chief Nice Guy role, urging unity and resistance for the collective good alongside Leandra, security man Evan (James Earl), and numerous others.
A few folks simply, uselessly, flip out under the strain, notably stoner Marty (Sean Gunn). But presenting a far greater menace to the majority is a small consortium of alpha males led by Belko COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn). With creepy lieutenant Wendell (John C. McGinley) as his second-in-command, they decide it’s realistic to “buy time” by obeying some of the unseen controller’s orders — with themselves, of course, appointed as everyone else’s judge, jury, and executioners.
Though there are plenty of bit players here, McLean and Gunn do a fine job of distinguishing a large number of characters in circumstances that soon grow very hectic, with some of the more notable ones played by Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, David Del Rio, Michael Rooker, David Dastmalchian, and Rusty Schwimmer. The filmmakers likewise keep the action menu as diverse as it is relentless (and often gory). There’s a pretty wide streak of humor here, but it resists splatstick in favor of occasional bleak wit and throwaway quips that don’t intrude on the essential suspense.
Once Elvis (or whoever the survivor may be) exits the building, you can safely go home, and the coda’s vague attempt at an explanatory social critique is as underwhelming as such things usually are. Still, that scarcely diminishes the fun and vigor of everything that precedes it. As a self-aware guilty pleasure, “The Belko Experiment” may not quite seize greatness, but it does give it a playful squeeze.