Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Film Review: The Belko Experiment needs to ramp up the inspiration to justify its violence

Remember Saw? As in, the first Saw, the original one, the good one before the franchise crashed and burned? Two people sealed in a room as some sort of sick game orchestrated by a twisted man. The claustrophobic environment created atmosphere and the minimal violence between the two characters helped the tension creep up slowly before landing on a last minute plot twist so jaw dropping you might've considered reconstructive face surgery. Now, imagine that, but within a multi storey office block with about eighty people that gives in to excessive violence before even the first act is over.

It doesn't sound quite as interesting, does it? The Belko Experiment sets itself up as a fun, ultraviolent B-movie. You know, the kind of film you can shut your brain off with and just sit back and have a bit of fun. Instead, director Greg McLean keeps the tone deadly serious the entire time, and writer James Gunn isn't playful nor inventive enough with the violence for it to feel satisfyingly entertaining. What we're left with is an overly serious film that should be fun and tense but instead feels underwhelming and misjudged.

To put it simply, an office block is suddenly thrown into lock down and the workers are told via intercom that they have half an hour to kill one person or five of them will be executed at random. It's a threat that than escalates to thirty people and so on. Immediately, too many characters are thrown at us. I don't think genuine character development was ever on Gunn's mind here - which is fine for a film like this - but we at least need to kind of care about them. They're all as flat as cardboard and as wooden as a chair.

Surprisingly, the huge cast of The Belko Experiment do an admirable job here. Granted, no one's going to be anxiously rubbing their hands together come award season, but a number of characters are strengthened marginally through the people playing them. John Gallagher Jr is infectiously likeable in his early moments, Tony Goldwyn's snarly line delivery makes for a solid makeshift villain. They don't add depth to their fictional counterparts, but they bring persona and characteristics to them.

Interestingly, The Belko Experiment also finds a kind of unpredictability in the order in which its characters are killed off. In a film of this sort, waiting for the next character to bite the dust is just about the only way to craft tension, and Gunn's script initially makes this work - the first character to die is someone I had pegged to last until the final act. There's even a brilliantly tense set piece involving an elevator that not only demonstrates the film's one moment of violent innovation, but also ends so abruptly that it works in its own favour, It's hardly groundbreaking, but with a film so unoriginal - there can only be so many Battle Royales, so many Hunger Games' - any little twist in formula is welcome.

Anything the film succeeds in, though, is ultimately wiped out by a final ten minutes that are so misjudged and poorly executed that asking for a refund feels necessary. Explanation and exposition pour in by the bucket load and none of it sticks. Had The Belko Experiment been brave enough to just be a violent, self contained piece of carnage then the film might earn some respect. Instead, sequels are set up and context is awkwardly dropped in - the effect of all that worked is lost, and all that didn't work is somehow worsened.

Ultimately, The Belko Experiment just doesn't try hard enough to justify its own existence. There's very little here that we haven't seen before only infinitely more accomplished. The film is incredibly, incessantly violent, but rarely in the right ways. It isn't inventive enough with its killings, not playful enough with its tone. By the time the building is unsealed and one character walks free, the violence will have numbed you to your core, just not for the right reasons.

In A Sentence
Despite solid performances and the occasional flash of inspiration, The Belko Experiment is neither fun nor inventive enough to justify its incessant violence and lacklustre script.

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