Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Films of 2017: The Belko Experiment

The key moment in the violent horror film The Belko Experiment (2017) arrives early in the action. It’s almost a throwaway visual.

In a high-tech office in Colombia -- atop a work station -- an ant farm stands. 

An ant farm, of course, is a vivarium or transparent container that permits viewers the close-up study of ant colonies. By watching the container and the creatures toil within, we can understand their behavior better.

But some of those viewers -- possessing a stronger God Complex, perhaps -- aren’t satisfied with mere observation, or learning. Instead, some individuals want to impact the ants; to interfere. 

They want to change their world, and change the lives of those living inside.  Often for their worse.

The ant farm is the perfect, intentional metaphor for the action of this horror film from writer James Gunn and director Greg McLean. The briefly-seen ant farm is a reminder that some of us seek not to co-exist peacefully with others. Some of us seek, instead, to make decisions of life and death for their fellow humans.

The film concerns a building-sized “ant farm” for humans in Bogota; a social science experiment brought to life to understand, simply, how better to manipulate people...through threats against their survival.

The Belko Experiment uses its central experiment -- an ant-farm like study of manipulation in corporate space -- to critique Big Business, and, of course, human nature. The film is strikingly violent, and gory, and for these reasons it didn’t earn the good reviews it likely deserved.  

Yet the artists behind this film understand that horror is the perfect vehicle not just for terror, but for social commentary. 

In this day and age, horror’s dual function is more important than ever, and The Belko Experiment lives up to the highest aspirations of the genre; it reflects and comments on the era we live in.

“The object is to get all of you upset.”

In Bogota, it seems like a normal day at the Belko corporate building. Employee Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr) shows up, and notices, however, unfamiliar security guards at the facility. He meets with his girlfriend, Leandra (Adria Arjone) and starts to go about his work.

But soon, events spiral out of control. 

The windows are sealed by steel shutters, phone reception is cut off, as well as air-conditioning, and all internet access. 

Before anyone can understand exactly what is happening, a  menacing voice comes over the intercom telling the employees to kill one another. There are eighty people in the building, and in thirty minutes, two employees must be dead.  

Murder any two of your fellow employees,” the voice instructs.

The employees are also tagged with implants -- tracers in the back of the head -- that were implanted upon employment in case of a kidnapping scenario. It turns out, however, that they are rigged with explosives, should employees not cooperate with the experiment. 

And, as Mike finds up, he and the other employees are being monitored by surveillance cameras, so that removing the tags (via crude surgery...) is not an viable option.

The chief operating officer of Belko, Barry (Tony Goldwyn) views accessing the company’s gun locker as a way to assert control over the situation, while others, including the building maintenance man (Michael Rooker) seek ways of escape.

After the first murderous test (the murder of two employees), more instructions are delivered by the voice on the intercom. 

Now thirty people must die if any employees hope to escape…

“The circumstances do not alter what is right, and what is wrong.”

The Belko Experiment raises all sorts of question about what it means to be a moral person. If forced to participate in a game of murder, is it moral to fight to survive? 

Or is the right answer to brace for certain death, and die with your ideals intact? Do you fight? Hide? Surrender?

In what seems a very clear reflection of our modern era, the seemingly omnipotent voice on the intercom -- armed with continuous surveillance of the populace inside the building -- has created an experiment that, instead of bringing people together, divides them. 

There are some employees, such as Barry, who will do anything to survive; to win, even if his action goes against decency and the tenets of human morality. Then there are others, like Mike, who work to fight the system, only to find the deck stacked against them (in the form of the tracer tags). Even when this fact is learned, Mike attempts to build bridges between people, rather than divide people. 

Ultimately, he is not successful, and Belko devolves into a Civil War in which the lives of different people, of different stripes, matter to different degrees.  

At one point, Barry gathers would-be victims up in one room, and divides the employees into people over the age of sixty, and people with children under eighteen. Those who are older, presumably, and don’t have young children? Their lives don’t matter. At least not as much.

So Barry is the mirror for Mike. He has the killer instinct, and doesn't see consensus and cooperation as viable tenets for survival in this situation. He seeks to control the situation, and decide who lives, and who dies.

Set against the backdrop of big business, the film suggests the schizophrenic (or at least multi-layered) nature of the corporate world. 

On one hand, there are the antiseptic labels and signs of the work place, which suggest shared values, and shared responsibilities. 

They suggest things like “Please leave the toilet clean for the next use.” A bathroom however, becomes a place to hide, and even a place of bloodshed and violence.  

Later, we see a wall-sized sign/projected image with the motto “Bringing the World Together,” during the carnage and final battle.  

Perhaps this statement is true, but those individuals behind the experiment, are actually bringing the world together only in terms of terror.  Even the film’s climax -- which involves murder by tape-dispenser -- is set against the backdrop of this projected screen; a Power-Point-like presentation showing a graph of estimated growth, slogans of forced-positive vibes, and a slide about the minimum wage. 

There is, of course, an underlying truth to companies like Belko, apparently a ‘”non-profit,” which these slides illustrate.  

Business is only about competition. About “winners” and “losers.” Business is about achieving growth for the organization, even if means paying the workers less. There is a Darwinian quality to it that isn’t really “feel good,” like the slogans suggest.  Big Business wants all employees to think they are on a team. 

But only some on the team will get ahead, and get rich.  It's designed to be that way. For the spoils to go to the top.
The moment when Barry gets employees together and groups them by type to kill them is, indeed, a metaphor for corporate down-sizing as well as the contemporary politics of division. 

Who is the most productive (and deserves to live?) Who doesn’t fit the company’s long-term profile for success, and is therefore the fat that must be cut-out of Belko?

The opening moments of the film, which feature the ant farm I mentioned in the introduction, play, intriguingly like an episode of The Office (2005 – 2013) or the workplace comedy, Office Space (1999). 

We meet various workers in their cubicles, which are decorated -- lightly -- to illuminate their personal characteristics. Some of the employees are in love, and flirty. Some are obnoxious (see: John McGinley), and there are the rituals of the work day. Employees show each other family photos, gab about plans, and so forth. 

But The Belko Experiment suggests that all these normal everyday connections and interactions are but a thin veneer masking real human nature. We would cut loose our friends and co-workers, the film suggests, in the event of an experiment like this one.

Indeed, Mike rises through the ranks, essentially, of Belko, by killing corrupt (inefficient?) management and proving to be the most efficient murderer in the entire building; at least from a certain perspective. 

He is the winner who has reached his highest potential, right? At one point, Mike is framed in front of the projector, committing murder, with the letters "KO" (knock-out?) of Belko in the frame, suggesting his victory over Barry.

The film is also, without a doubt, a commentary on the modern, high-tech surveillance state. We learn in the film that those watching The Belko Experiment believe they are “simply gathering data” and that Belko possesses offices in 40 countries. 

Presumably, employees at that location are being set up for a “sequel,” another experiment that tests their determination to survive in a blood-bath like the one in Bogota. The experiment is about, presumably, "the challenges of the modern office environment," but what it really concerns is the desire of those behind it to control other people; to turn good people against one another.

The characters in The Belko Experiment must choose to work together, or kill each other, in a very tense environment.  

Some viewers of current events in America may see that as a commentary not merely on the kill-or-be-killed world of 21st century corporations, but on the divisive political tribalism of the national discourse today, as well.

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