THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence throughout, Language including Sexual References, and some Drug Use

Directed by: Greg McLean

Written by: James Gunn

Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker & Gregg Henry

Work sucks. You probably deal with stupid people on a daily basis and suffer small indignities that pile on unnecessary stress, but things could be a hell of a lot worse. How, you might ask? Well, have you ever had to dodge bullets in your office while using a paper trimmer as an improvised weapon? No? Things don’t seem quite as bad now, do they? THE BELKO EXPERIMENT has this exact scenario play out and turns an office building into a bloody battleground. Directed by Greg McLean (WOLF CREEK) and penned by James Gunn (SLITHER), this film is BATTLE ROYALE in an office building. Though it has flaws, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a lot of fun…if office drones slaughtering each other sounds like fun to you. To me, it certainly does and I enjoyed watching this flick.

Belko Industries is a large business that’s located in the middle of nowhere. It seems like a pretty nice place to work (big money, cushy jobs, company cars and paid-for apartments), but all of that changes in an instant. Without warning, a voice comes over the intercom and informs employees that they are now part of a twisted experiment. They must kill two people or face dire consequences. The workers laugh this announcement off as a bad joke, but unexpected metal security doors proceed block off all exits and windows. Still, they refuse to murder and then a few heads explode. The Belko employees will participate in this kill-or-be-killed exercise or their brains will be blown to kingdom come. Things begin to breakdown into thick tensions and bloody carnage as the voice on the intercom demands more bodies…

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT wears its influences on its sleeve. The biggest of these being, of course, BATTLE ROYALE. The script liberally borrows a few plot devices from that film to ensure that things get as bloody as they possibly can, which is a very good thing in a story like this. There’s also a quirky sense of humor as employees attempt to salvage normalcy and remain somewhat civilized in the face of this unthinkable scenario. The office setting, creative killing tools, and little mannerisms all naturally lend a goofy vibe to the proceedings, making a few disturbing scenarios into something downright comical. One of my favorite bits involves a particularly gruesome demise while the company’s promotional video plays in the background.

Despite having 80 employees in the building, Gunn’s script does a solid job of giving many of Belko’s workers time to shine in individual moments. There’s a sense that we’ve all met these people in one setting or another, which makes it even more interesting to watch as they start offing each other. The characters you’d expect to be psychos do become psychos, which could be seen as a problem in the plot’s predictability. Still, the ways that they become unhinged remain entertaining. The film isn’t constant carnage from the minute the killing starts, but begins with small bits of bloodshed and allows for a pressure-cooker of “what would you do?” suspense to build before bursting into an action-packed orgy of chaos. The slower bits and murdery moments deliver equal levels of intensity for entirely different reasons.

John Gallagher Jr. (who recently played a survivor in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE and a psycho-killer in HUSH) plays pacifist protagonist Mike. His constant rationalization of trying to save everybody makes a hero that the audience can root for, while some folks around him seem a little too eager to slaughter their coworkers. Adria Arjona is solid as Mike’s girlfriend and delivers two of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Tony Goldwyn shines as the murder-happy boss and John C. McGinley is great as the office creep (coming off like a psycho version of Milton from OFFICE SPACE). Other cast highlights include: Sean Gunn as a Shaggy-like stoner, Michael Rooker as the scruffy head of Maintenance, Melonie Diaz as an innocent new hire, and Rusty Schwimmer as a security guard. Most of the background characters are colorful enough to stick out too, making their murders and deaths seem like more than just a generic body count.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT was definitely influenced by other (better) films and is predictable to an extent, but neither of these things really damage the film’s fun. The entertainment factor is through the roof as we watch colorful office drones turn on each other and bite it in various ways. There’s also a sinister sense of humor, even though this isn’t exactly a laugh riot. The film lets its extreme situation naturally build, with effective pacing that puts the viewer in the shoes of these characters. There was a specific scene where I was rooting for one character to brutally kill another character. The film then allowed for a small breath of hesitation to let the audience realize that they had just been put into the same mindset of that character. There’s something special about a film that can accomplish that. If you’re a horror fan, then THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a gory good time!

Grade: B+

DIVERGENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and some Sensuality

Divergent poster

Directed by: Neil Burger

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor

(based on the novel DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn & Ashley Judd

The vast well of material found in young adult fiction has been used a lot in the past few years. Since TWILIGHT was coming to a close and HARRY POTTER ended a decade-long reign at the box office, studios have been searching for the next big franchise to target the teenage demographic. THE HUNGER GAMES has become the new champion, but that isn’t stopping big budget attempts to start new film series out of any middle-school-oriented novel that comes out. Take for example the latest in this trend, DIVERGENT. Despite some shaky looking promotional material for this film, I was optimistic that it might be a good flick. After all, the book was so immensely popular that people had to be seeing something in the material. This all being said, DIVERGENT is a jumbled mess of scrambled parts from other (mostly more successful) plots that we’ve seen in the last few years.

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In a dystopian future, Chicago is the city left standing. The general population is separated into five separate groups (ala THE HUNGER GAMES) to keep the peace. Each citizen goes through a test that shows them which group best suits their personality. Tris is the teenage daughter in a family that belong to the vegan/hippie faction of society. Upon taking the test, it turns out that she’s a Divergent. This label is placed on individuals seen as a threats because they test positive for all five factions. Tris keeps this to herself and decides to join the law enforcement faction. This tests both her physical endurance and her mental strength. Bullied by some and facing the possibility of winding up factionless (e.g. homeless), Tris goes through rigorous training to find a place in her new faction. She also falls in love with Four (one of her trainers). The two do their best to avoid suspicion of Tris’s Divergent nature as an escalating war is on the horizon between factions.

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The ideas behind the plot of DIVERGENT aren’t bad ones. We’ve seen many of these clichéd scenarios in recent years (e.g. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE HOST, ENDER’S GAME, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, I AM NUMBER FOUR, etc.). It’s the construction of the whole affair that’s a convoluted mess. In THE HUNGER GAMES series, ENDER’S GAME, and (hell, even) THE HOST, the dystopian future was explored just enough to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer. In DIVERGENT, the script seems focused on the wrong elements of the story. This is a dystopian society, but there are still tattoo parlors in underground dwellings (I almost laughed out loud when I saw this). A lot of things don’t make any sense in this world recovering from a supposed apocalyptic war. To add insult to injury, a whole lot of sappy pop songs make up the soundtrack. What else can you expect from a film whose target demographic is teenage girls?

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I would equate a majority of DIVERGENT to the recent adaptation of ENDER’S GAME. Imagine if that film had been based purely on Ender’s training for the war and hadn’t had a satisfying payoff. That’s exactly what DIVERGENT does and why it fails at being compelling. You could have summed up half of the film in 10 or 20 minutes. Even a montage would have been more satisfying. The movie adaptation feels that every single stage of Tris’s training is essential to watch. This makes for an over-two-hour running time that feels far longer than it should in every possible way. This might make for a compelling read, but as a film there’s plenty of editing that was needed. It’s not interesting to watch a teenage girl train for most of a movie where far more exciting events felt glossed over in the final third.

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The less said about performances and character, the better. Some tired clichés are used in the fast-paced ridiculous climax of the film. In fact, one of them is used twice (with unintentionally hilarious results). There are also discussions of politics and a deeper meaning that isn’t nearly as deep as some people claim it is. The message of how dangerous conformity can be was hammered in frequently. There were about three speeches (two of which were delivered from a scenery chewing Kate Winslet) preaching about the evils of free will and human nature. Had it not been for the giggling overly excited teenage girls in the packed auditorium, I was tempted to yell at the screen “We get it! Be more subtle!” That is the kind of film DIVERGENT is though. It’s the kind of movie that has its target audience cheering during so-called fight scenes, clapping as the end credits roll, and one girl notably yelled “Yes!” when a predictable kiss came. It’s successful in that sense, but that doesn’t make it a good movie!

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Perhaps, I might be optimistic in INSURGENT (coming out next year, because Lionsgate is pumping this franchise without even knowing how successful it will wind up being). After all, I liked CATCHING FIRE a whole lot more than the first HUNGER GAMES. In the first 30 minutes, I thought that DIVERGENT was a decent enough flick rounding about a C+. By about an hour in, that grade had been lowered to a C-. By the time the melodramatic, downright terrible film concluded it was at a…

Grade: D

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