Although many accused The Hunger Games of ripping off the 2000 Japanese stunner Battle Royale, The Belko Experiment is the true heir to Kinji Fukasaku's nihilist bloodbath. Written by James Gunn long before Guardians of the Galaxy made him an A-lister, the film displays the same bloody, darkly humorous energy in Gunn's Super and Slither. With his attentions now focused on superhero franchises, Gunn handed over Belko's reins to Australian genre director Greg McLean.
Belko's setup is familiar to anyone who's seen Battle Royale, only subbing out Japanese teenagers with adult Westerners: 80 employees of the fictional Belko Corporation suddenly find themselves locked inside their office building, where a voice over the crackly PA system informs them that they have just half an hour to kill two of their own, or else four will automatically die instead. Disbelief turns to horror once that half-hour is up, and four employee heads explode, courtesy of the company's "tracking devices", which turn out to be tiny bombs. (Yes, a similar device was used in Battle Royale – it's almost impossible to believe that Gunn had not seen and been influenced by Fukasaku's film.) The next instruction is given over the PA: 30 more employees must be killed within two hours, or 60 will die.
What you get here is pure non-stop tension, thanks to McLean's taut direction and Julia Wong's razor-sharp editing. Here's one suspenser that doesn't skimp on the gore, which places The Belko Experiment somewhere between action picture and horror movie. There is the expected social critique – the corporate world is dog-eat-dog, blah blah blah – but the movie doesn't beat you over the head with it.
However, the story charges ahead at such a rapid pace that I feel a few opportunities were lost. For instance, the opening minutes of the film introduce us to various office (stereo)types – the stoner, the prig, the queen, the lech – and you'd think that, once ordered to turn on each other, all those everyday grudges and biases would dictate a sort of interoffice Darwinism. But Belko all too quickly pits the company's handful of higher-ups against the teeming masses, taking no time to develop any internal skirmishes that might have made the satire more pointed. Nor is the setting – Colombia – made particularly relevant; I can only assume that production credits and cheap labor made the film affordable to shoot there. The story could have easily taken place in Silicon Valley.
Still, I recommend The Belko Experiment as a bloody, nasty, visceral piece of work. If you're in the mood for a solid thriller, this one will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you can't deal with exploding heads, stay far away.