Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2017

The Belko Experiment

Safety last

On Swedish microchips, corporate death matches, and measures of personal protection turned upside down

The Belko Experiment
BH Tilt
Director: Greg McLean
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, James Earl, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Brent Sexton, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, Owain Yeoman and Josh Brener
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 2.35:1
March 17, 2017
(out of four)

The only appropriate response is "Hell no." Hell no you cannot inject a microchip in my body. You cannot inject it for security, or convenience, or ease of access, or protection, or surveillance, and you definitely can't tell me you're doing it for my own good. You cannot inject it anywhere, Sam-I-Am.

I say this with all due respect to the technological innovators of the great country of Sweden, who have been in the news recently on account of the growing popularity of microchipping employees, with uses ranging from opening doors to operating machinery. And look, all The Belko Experiment is saying is, don't be surprised someday if those microchips get detonated and employees' heads start exploding. Don't say we didn't warn you. "Oh, they said it was for your own convenience and protection? They told you a scary story about maybe getting kidnaped? Yeah, that's what they told everybody over at Belko, and look what happened to those poor bastards."

Indeed, this Greg McLean-directed, James Gunn-scripted picture posits the very reality Sweden has apparently preemptively embraced, only these microchips are rigged with explosives. The better to turn the employees murderously against each other with. The setting is the high-rise of an American corporation situated on the outskirts of Bogotá, and the unwitting players are all the non-Colombian employees who work there - all of whom received the microchip injection as a condition of their employment.

When the film opens, Dany (the always-reliable character actress Melonie Diaz) has only just received hers - what Belko cheerfully refers to as a personal-safety measure. It's a cruel joke on her, then, that her first day on the job is the very last day of whatever experiment these microchips were put in place to facilitate. The workday has only just begun and the building is put on lockdown - reinforced steel snapping into place on the other side of every door and window - and an omniscient voice informs them that, to paraphrase, they will have to kill each other or be killed. Thanks to those microchips, whoever is in charge here can kill whomever they please at any time - a few early demonstrations make that perfectly clear - but they'd prefer it if Belko's finest did it to one another instead. And, at least as far as the stated rules are concerned, doing so will actually mitigate the bloodshed. You kill 30, or we'll kill 60.

And so begins the immediate reversal of the very security everyone believed they had signed up for. The autonomy they so willingly signed away. The Belko Experiment is propelled by the betrayal by, and with, the very technology that was meant to be its characters' fail safe. Their ultimate protection. And the film, by extension, is about the stripping-away of personal security - personal well-being - under the guise of security itself. Tracking chips, surveillance cameras, GPS, phone and laptop cameras, Internet histories - not to mention the entities that have access to, or control of, those means of protection, comfort, safety. Practically anything with such powerful ability to protect can be just as easily flipped.

Now now: Let me stop myself right there for a second. Lest you think I'm making The Belko Experiment out to be some profound treatise on the tenuous nature of personal security in the 21st Century. It's really not. Its ideas are less a thesis and more a springboard to a quick, mean, gory little death-match thriller. Then again, sometimes straightforward, down-and-dirty efforts like this can make more persuasive arguments than a more thorough and purposeful film. This one reminds me of one of those seedy '80s movies with a mildly topical/prescient social angle that people wind up taking too seriously years later. More directly, it has obvious shades of Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, as well as Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods (but much less funny) and Stuart Hazeldine's Exam (but less psychologically taut, if ultimately more honest).

Even if it's not particularly robust in its cautionary satire, it still makes for a simple but apt survey of behaviors and personality types. There's something familiar about the specific way its characters react to the situation. There's the guy who confidently assures everyone it's a hoax from the minute it starts - believes he can see right through a corporate "test" when he sees one. There's the guy - Tony Goldwyn, looking every bit the prototypical corporate management type - who reluctantly accepts the rules of the game, insisting, as he begins separating people into groups by degree of expendability, that he's merely being rational. (And it's surely a coincidence that he gets to be one of the survivors, along with his fellow ex-military buddies.) And then, of course, there are those who insist they can't, and won't, deliberately hurt anyone. On principle. Even if the situation seemingly requires it. Naturally, the film's lead characters fit into that category - Mike (John Gallagher Jr) and his new girlfriend Leandra (beautiful-to-the-point-of-distraction Adria Arjona), who while dealing with the possible systematic murder of her co-workers also has to deal with the entitled and unwanted glances and advances of Wendell (John C. McGinley). (To the suprise of no one, Wendell slides right in line alongside the office's self-proclaimed alphas.)

Belko is effectively crafted, occasionally (but not consistently) funny, well-acted (by Arjona, McGinley and James Earl in particular) and resides almost entirely on the surface of its core ideas. There are a couple of accidental deaths that are pretty cheap, undermining the the focused purpose of the premise in order to give us an extra gory scene or two, as if fulfilling a quota. But for the most part, the film doesn't cheat much. I mean, movie characters behave differently than we do, so there's plenty that might raise an eyebrow, morally or otherwise. But most of it is defensible in cinematic context. Whether it's worthwhile is another matter. Its sights may not be set very high, and it may only get a moderate resonance out of its loaded subject matter, but the film is nothing if not a brutally efficient killing machine.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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