“The Belko Experiment” starts out promisingly enough. The idea of being locked in an office and forced to killed your fellow employees is chilling, and John Gallagher Jr., after terrific supporting work in “Short Term 12” and “10 Cloverfield Lane,” gives a heroic and endearingly human central performance. The pacing is great, defined by long stretches of tension punctuated by sudden, horrifying violence to create an affecting, if familiar, portrait of human nature at its worst. The absolute high points are the interactions between the workers, though, as they try to levee their workplace relationships into positions of greater power.
“Belko” is at its best in its first half — as it soon abandons all semblance of being a smart thriller in favor of becoming a mindless gorefest. All of the shock and discomfort that accompanied the violence in earlier, better scenes is replaced by a numbness. Nothing that is portrayed on screen has any weight, and this applies most of all to the cast. The side characters that the audience has been following for the entire movie are often killed off before they are given a chance to affect the story in any meaningful way. After the umpteenth pointless character death, one can only wonder why writer James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) saw fit to introduce these characters in the first place. Was it a misguided attempt to make his script feel like it had greater stakes than it does? As it is, most of them are cannon fodder, extras of a movie they ostensibly star in.
This mean-spiritedness takes its toll after a while, and “The Belko Experiment” becomes a truly joyless slog to watch. The moment a dog randomly shows up, you mentally brace yourself for it to die horribly, as well. By the third act, it has descended into violence for the sake of violence. It’s not fun, smart or even all that scary. It’s just sadistic. Characters do outrageously bloody battle with slogan like “Brings the world together” painted on the walls behind them, because director Greg McLean (“The Darkness”) thought blatant irony would make the proceedings more bearable. It doesn’t.
In fact, for a film written by the man behind one of the best and funniest comic book movies of the last decade, “Belko” stumbles in its writing more than anywhere else. He tries to inject his signature humor wherever he can, but the jokes, few of which land anyway, can’t contend with the harsh, dreary atmosphere. The natural questions invited by the premise cause a glut of exposition, as well, and no matter the strengths of the performers, no one could have made the resulting clunky dialogue sound natural.
As “The Belko Experiment” draws closer to its conclusion, there has been so much build-up to answers to the questions viewers have been asking that the eventual answer can’t help but be disappointing. There’s a climax that, like much of the rest of the late-film action, is completely hollow, and it ends with the textbook sequel-baiting ending that modern horror apparently demands. It starts with strong footing and ends having fallen flat on its face, reaulting in an hour-and-a-half of turgid, senseless bloodshed. If it was saying something unique, it might be more worthwhile. As it stands now, it feels like a wholly unnecessary experience.