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The Belko Experiment is an empty, nasty, weirdly out-of-date office satire

The movie mashes up The Office and Hunger Games to little effect.

The Belko Experiment
Here’s the best photo of the lead characters the studio made available. Yes. The best.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Belko Experiment often feels like it began life as a really strange piece of Office fan fiction.

The new indie action-horror-comedy mash-up that posits a Hunger Games–style battle to the death in an office building centers on characters who might as well be labeled “the Jim,” “the Michael,” “the Stanley,” etc.

A part of me spent the entire screening of the film wishing director Greg McLean (of famed Australian horror movie/endurance test Wolf Creek) had somehow managed to convince the entire cast of The Office to star in the movie.

But it’s not just The Office and The Hunger Games (or, probably more accurately, The Hunger Games’ much more violent Japanese forebear, Battle Royale). There’s also a healthy dose of The Cabin in the Woods in The Belko Experiment, as well as a dash of real-life events like the Stanford Prison Experiment.

That sounds like it should be a fun cocktail of craziness, right? Unfortunately, Belko feels like it’s really laying it to an America that barely exists any more. It’s yesterday’s satire, updated for today, and only interested in its brutality for brutality’s sake. It’s slick, empty, and uninterested in anything but its own viciousness.

Everything about The Belko Experiment feels like it was written in 2005

There’s a distinct whiff of “real estate boom” to The Belko Experiment, in a way that suggests neither McLean nor screenwriter James Gunn have set foot in an office environment since the early 2000s.

Our definition of what it means to be a “working stiff” has changed so much in such a short time that The Belko Experiment ends up seeming like a period piece. Many of the characters have private offices (even if they’re relatively low on the corporate ladder), their jobs seem designed to pursue completely imaginary goals, and the whole film has a “forced corporate fun” vibe that feels like it lags behind our “open office full of overworked, underpaid millennials” era.

The Belko Experiment
Just some of the surprisingly great cast members of The Belko Experiment.

The characters who work for the Belko corporation — which, you might have gathered, is subjected to an experiment — all exist within a company that’s meant to facilitate the process of helping American workers move overseas. (The film is set and was shot in Colombia.) This kind of empty, corporate job, designed mostly to move money around various ledger sheets, still exists in 2017, but Belko doesn’t really have anything to say about the work itself, or global capitalism, or even office politics beyond, “Boy, sometimes, working in an office environment can be dehumanizing!”

Indeed, maybe the lack of specificity around the Belko corporation is the point. The movie immediately pivots to the characters all attempting to kill each other at the behest of a mysterious voice, and the weird universality of this particular office environment is likely meant to suggest what would happen if any one of the millions of offices around the world erupted into bloodshed.

But even that excuse pales when you realize how stiff and lazy Belko is in its conception of a “typical” corporate environment. There are occasional stabs at exploring workplace harassment, or considering the ultimate hollowness of most workplace friendships. But none of these ideas are explored any better thanks to the horror movie context, or any more so than they already have been in dozens of other workplace comedies and satires.

This means The Belko Experiment exists mainly to dispatch of its surprisingly stacked cast (which includes everybody from rising leading man John Gallagher Jr. to Tony Goldwyn to John C. McGinley — to name three familiar faces at random). McLean, a gorehound to the end, indulges in shots of bodies being cut, splattered, and popped like ticks. Heads explode, axes enter chest cavities, and Molotov cocktails rain down.

McLean knows how to be nasty and gory. Wolf Creek toed the line but generally stayed on the right side of exploitative. But Belko, obviously shot on a shoestring budget, gets caught in a feedback loop between its larger ideals of workplace satire and its evidently cheap look.

Good exploitation movies have a certain verve to them. Every time Belko gets into a groove, with some fun plot twists or inventively gory moments, it pauses to make some point or another about the modern workplace that feels at least a decade out of date.

There’s a good — maybe even a great — action-horror-satire to be made about how in the post-Great Recession world, plenty of Americans in white-collar jobs feel increasingly held captive by the need to keep their heads above water, even as they realize the darkness at the heart of the companies they work for.

The Belko Experiment occasionally gets close to realizing that idea, but most of the time, it feels like it was unearthed during an archaeological dig exploring the long-ago world of 2005.

The Belko Experiment is playing in select theaters.