Despite my best efforts at avoiding intimate knowledge of a film before I sit down to watch it, sometimes, one can’t avoid going into a screening without a preconceived notion of what to expect. I certainly had such a preconceived notion regarding The Belko Experiment. Most of it came from the fact that the screenplay was by James Gunn, best known as the director and co-writer of Guardians of the Galaxy and its upcoming sequel. That original Guardians film is, in my opinion, the highest-quality comic book film ever made. I was expecting much of the same sensibilities from that film to carry over into this one: dark humor, frequent witticisms, memorable characters, and so on.
The Belko Experiment isn’t that kind of movie. This is the James Gunn that brought us Slither and Super. This film is a brainchild of the non-family-friendly James Gunn. And that’s okay. He doesn’t pigeonhole himself into one restrictive style, instead choosing to wear several different hats. It’s good to push oneself and not become complacent and no artist should bend to the will of what the audience expects from them. I have a feeling, however, that this is going to be one of those films with a commonly mistaken director, as the directing duties fall not to Gunn, but to Greg McLean, probably best known for Wolf Creek.
At the simple mention of Gunn having significant creative input, my inner-film geek begins to salivate. He has a fantastic creative mind and it’s impossible to tell exactly where he’ll take his stories. As a result of the expectations that follow such a reputation, I was surprisingly a little underwhelmed by The Belko Experiment.
It’s sometimes said that there is only one actual story to be explored in fiction: Who am I? The Belko Experiment works from that perspective. In essence, it’s the “Who Am I?” story after six Pulp-Fiction-style adrenaline shots to the heart. For 80 characters. Don’t worry; there aren’t 80 full-fledged characters to keep track of. The Belko office begins with approximately 80 workers in the building. And it ends with fewer.
It would be dishonest to suggest that the film isn’t thought-provoking. The larger narrative at play unfolds in practically the only way a situation like this could; that’s not where the introspection comes in. Rather, the fun is involved in seeing how each character (there are about a dozen who are focused on) reacts to the experiment as an individual. Who plays along? Who doesn’t? And why or why not? It’s all presented in a believable fashion (though some of the violence is a little over-the top), with nobody becoming a caricature. I certainly found myself imagining who would be taking what stance if this sort of thing occurred at my own place of employment. Even scarier is that I came up with some potential answers. I’ll continue to choose my friends and acquaintances carefully.
While all of that works fine, the story, itself – again, while conceivable as presented – is almost entirely predictable. There are no true twists or surprises regarding the main story arc. Some of the minor details might offer a bit of a startle, but when it comes to the narrative, I never once thought to myself that I didn’t see something coming. I’m not trying to suggest that this is necessarily a requirement for any given film, but it was pretty clear that some of the “revelations” were intended to be just that: revelatory. Instead, I considered them a natural and inevitable progression of the events that were playing out on-screen. Maybe that’s more of an issue with McLean’s directorial presentation. If these moments hadn’t been framed in a way that communicated their intention to be a shock, then there would be no disappointment for anyone who not only saw them coming, but could envision no other sensible outcome.
In a way, that may come across as a backhanded compliment. Because, under the premise, the film does, indeed, play out sensibly. And anyone should want that for their film. I think McLean should have altered his style a bit, however, in order to strike a tone more derivative of a suspense thriller, who-bites-it-next pulse-pounder, instead of a mystery surrounding who is behind the experiment and what their motivations may be. I believe, with that adjustment, the film would have ended with a bigger bang and not the feeling of having arrived at a foregone conclusion. The Lord of the Flies-style questions about the human condition are valid and provocative as a what-would-you-do? thought experiment but the surrounding entertainment aspects fall victim to tropes and clichés. If you were interested in the film, go ahead and see it. But if you were on the fence, there are four genuinely fantastic blockbusters out, right now, in Get Out, Logan, Kong: Skull Island, and Beauty and the Beast that I would suggest are far more deserving of your time and money.
My excitement level for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, however? Still at maximum capacity.
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