Directed by: Greg McLean
Written by: James Gunn
The “Kill or be killed” story is popular in modern fiction. From the remote islands of Battle Royale and Most Dangerous Game, to the televised contests like The Hunger Games and The Running Man, the question of “Who would you kill to survive?” is a powerful one. Now, The Belko Experiment takes the premise and puts it in a common, logical setting: A corporate office. The result is an overall successful, but frustrating entry to the genre.
Written by James Gunn (Dawn of the Dead, Super, Guardians of the Galaxy) and directed by Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), the movie gives us a simple, horrifying premise: The 80 employees at the Belko Corporation’s Colombian headquarters must kill three of their own, or six die. Once it’s clear that the request is not a joke, both the panic of the employees and the orders given by their superiors escalate.
The movie’s strength is in it’s execution. The action starts quickly, the acting is solid, and the tension runs high. Creative kills are always important to these stories (and horror in general), and Belko does not disappoint –the most satisfying one being when a female employee kills her harasser. The movie also succeeds in finding balance between terror and humor. Both Gunn and McLean have a history with the horror/humor tone (Gunn being more successful) and they know when to play it straight and when to cut the tension. The humor is subtle, but still effective: a character’s premature optimism a radio playing Spanish covers of 70’s songs, even a stoner claiming the carnage around him is all in his head. This works for the movie: without the humor element, the film would be overwhelmingly bleak, the opposite of what Gunn and McLean were going for.
Unfortunately, the movie has the same issue that plagued Logan: people of color are used essentially as cannon fodder (see: this piece for further reading). In instances, it works in the context of the movie. We see a Muslim women killed by the same boss that treated her with respect and even protection at the start of the experiment. When the employees in favor of cooperating with the game (all of whom are white men) start deciding who has to die they pick older people, childless women, the Colombian janitorial staff. Intentional or not, it shows that the status quo will sacrifice the “others” in order to preserve themselves. It also makes sense on a very personal level, especially if you are a part of a marginalized group. It plays on the idea that you may not be safe from anyone, that underneath it all, people see you as an “other” that can be easily disposed of.
It doesn’t work when it comes to the main character and eventual survivor, Mike. Mike is not an interesting character to begin with; his characterization begins and ends with “Good guy, doesn’t want to fight” and the actor is unable to make the character engaging. We follow Mike not because we want to, but because we’re told to. The fact that he survives almost by sheer luck is almost infuriating, especially considering he is surrounded by more compelling characters. There’s Evan, a black security guard, who is the first to stand up to those who want to participate; Peggy, an older woman who tries to keep everyone calm in the face of carnage; Leandra, a Latina women who is dating Mike, but is far more pragmatic when it comes to the experiment than her partner. Each of these supporting characters is more compelling, but they exist only in relation to Mike: Friend, coworker, girlfriend. And their deaths only serve as motivation for Mike to participate.
The worst example comes with the death of Leandra- who was shown having enough savvy to survive. She’s unceremoniously shot, and her death gives Mike the will to kill off the final bad guy and live through the experiment. It’s such a cliché, it’s insulting.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the only other character that we follow as much as Mike is Dany (Melodie Diaz), a young woman who picked the worst day to start her new job. She has the will to survive, and rather than participate, hides and gets by on her wits, to the point where she climbs down an elevator shift to stay hidden. And then she’s shot, her death an afterthought in the lead up to Mike’s victory. Mike’s survival wouldn’t be as unsatisfying if he was at least someone we wanted to root for. But in a film of intriguing supporting characters, just being a “good guy” doesn’t make for a good protagonist. In a different film, Mike would have died earlier and we would have followed Evan, Dany, or Leandra.
It’s a shame the movie didn’t take that route, because its own, it is a good entry in the “Kill or be killed” genre. It is just frustrating to see a horror movie fall back on tired tropes and characters, when there are other horror films (The Witch, Get Out), that are trying to defy or subvert conventions.