A quote on a poster announces that “The Belko Experiment” is “ ‘Office Space’ meets ‘Battle Royale.’ ” That’s not praise so much as a declaration of fact. Since the 2000 Japanese film about teens forced to kill each other in a government-sanctioned murder game, there have been many a riff on that cult classic — “The Condemned,” “The Tournament,” and most notably, and similarly, “The Hunger Games.” It’s a story format with which we’ve become familiar: Unwitting civilians are placed in a controlled environment where they are compelled by a Big Brother type to kill each other or be killed themselves. The variable is always the why.
In “The Belko Experiment,” the why turns out to be social science, much like the 1961 Milgram experiment that explored individual willingness to go against moral conscience in obeying commands. “The Belko Experiment,” written by “Guardians of the Galaxy” helmer James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean, is an extreme, gory and extremely violent take on that kind of research.
The film finds a group of 80 employees, mostly American, working at a Colombian recruiting firm. There are the standard office friendships, tensions and romances, which are all thrown into stark relief when impenetrable metal shutters come down and an ominous voice comes over a loudspeaker, instructing the group to kill each other or be killed themselves. The “game,” if you will, involves impossible ethical questions about whether to kill a certain number of innocent people in order to save a larger group of innocent people.
No one here is getting saved, though. Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) is the first to pick up on that. His boss, Barry (Tony Goldwyn), insists on following the instructions, out of some deference to authority or hope that the ominous voice might actually let them survive. His actions unleash a torrent of violent chaos in the building, as the employees descend into savage barbarism.
Despite cutesy Spanish-language covers of American songs playing on the radio, the proceedings are relentlessly grim and violent. The sadism enacted on screen is directed at the audience, battering us with horrific, deadening images. McLean takes splat to a whole new level, and soon every surface is slick with blood.
Most of these “Battle Royale” tributes aren’t contained to a single location — they take place outside, so there are opportunities for suspense and individual confrontations that truly draw out the essential, intimate nature of this terrible exercise. Confined to this sterile office space, “The Belko Experiment” descends into a meaningless orgy of murder. By the end of the film, you’re left with the unshakable feeling that everyone involved, from actors to filmmakers to audience, is, and should have been, better than material like this.