Saturday, October 14, 2017
After an asteroid breaches the saucer’s defense shields, Fi (Ruth Buzzi) and Fum (Jim Nabors) must land on Earth in the 23rd century.
There they encounter a clumsy robot named Goro, who is afraid to return to his human masters -- the Krugs -- who want to get their robot back and also for him to function properly.
Meanwhile, Jerry is captured by Sheriff Zork.
The Krugs, disappointed with their robot, want to send Goro to the recycling center. But Fi and Fum train Goro not to be too clumsy, and to function as a proper servant to the human family.
“My Fair Robot” is all kinds of wrong, at least in terms of the theme it conveys. Basically, the teleplay by John Fenton Murray concerns our lovable androids Fi and Fum teaching a robot how to accept a life of servitude to humans.
As the action starts, Goro has already run away from his so-called home because he doesn’t want to be a servant. But he returns when the androids convince the Krugs to give him a TV and not store him in the closet.
So slavery is okay, as long as you get a color television, and your own room, I guess.
I know the episode is meant to be a sitcom-type comedy, but the tale misses the mark in terms of progressive science fiction storytelling. How is it okay for artificial intelligence like Fi and Fum to teach another artificial intelligence, Goro, to be happy as the equivalent of a second class citizen? Would they be happy to be treated that way?
In terms of inspiration, “My Fair Robot” clearly goes back to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) but substitutes a futuristic setting, and a robot rather than a lower-class character, learning about how to fit in with society. Last week, Gulliver’s Travels was a source of inspiration, and I do find it rewarding that The Lost Saucer looks to fashion its narratives based on classic sources. Next week, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is re-parsed.
Visually, the Krugs resemble a live-action version of the characters in The Jetsons. Just look at those costumes and hair-cuts! It’s as though the production-designer for The Lost Saucer (1975) just decided to adopt the whole Jetsons aesthetic in terms of color, and wardrobe. It looks abundantly silly, which may be the point.
The other weak point of the episode, beyond the short-sighted theme, is the physical appearance of our guest star: Goro. He looks to be the kind of robot that pre-adolescent kids build in the Boy Scouts. The costume is basically made of two cardboard boxes; one for the head and one for the torso, both painted silver. It’s difficult to believe that anyone that that this costume could pass muster on TV, even in 1975.
Next week: “Transylvania 2300.”
In “Circus Time at Benita’s,” the Bugaloos are disappointed when a traveling circus cancels its engagement in Tranquility Forest.
Actually, Benita (Martha Raye) paid all the performers not to show up, so she can put on her own circus. She plans to draw attention to her own singing career before the equivalent of a captive audience.
Meanwhile, a magician hypnotizes Sparky (Billy Barty) to make him feel brave, and he uses his new skills to go on the attack against Benita.
This gives Benita her own bad idea. She wants to be hypnotized to be the best singer in the world.
With just two episodes left to go, The Bugaloos (1970) tells another very familiar story.
This one falls under the category of “Sparky Saves the Day,” and involves the timid firefly overcoming some key character flaw and defeating (at least temporarily) Benita Bizarre. I realize that before arc storytelling, there was a lot of repetition in stand-alone shows, and especially in children's programming of the 1970's.
Still, you know the series is getting desperate when the plot of the week involves a frog magician hypnotizing one of the main characters. Throw in a bad James Cagney imitation (on Sparky’s part), and that’s all you need to have a thoroughly uninteresting 22 minutes.
There's not even a new song performed, to enjoy.
Next week: “The Uptown 500” livens up the old formula a bit with car race.
Friday, October 13, 2017
[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Killing Ground (2017) is a grim, upsetting bit of cinematic business from Australia, and director Damien Power. The film is a superb example of traditional “Savage Cinema” standards, and involves two doomed camping excursions in the woods that -- over a period of four days -- both fall prey to amoral hunters.
The film’s elevated sense of artistry -- with pervasive cross-cutting deliberately taking the audience from one doomed expedition to the other -- helps to mitigate some of the film’s darkest moments.
Still, Killing Ground is a very powerful, very disturbing film, and it ends with the suggestion, terribly, that a human infant has been left behind in the woods...to be eaten by wild pigs. It’s an especially horrible turn of events, since, for at least a while, audiences are left with the hope that the child has managed to survive the terror intact.
In terms of Savage Cinema standards, Killing Ground hits one of the favorite obsessions of the sub-genre pretty hard (and very effectively, too boot).
And that trope is, specifically, that through extreme adversity and terror, the protagonists learn their true natures.
Here, Ian (Ian Meadows), a man studying to be a doctor, proves his inherent moral weakness. His girlfriend, Samantha (Harriet Dyer), by contrast, rises to the occasion and demonstrates her real strength and power.
In this case, those two discoveries are in direct opposition. Samantha not only learns of her innate strength, she learns too, of her boyfriend’s total weakness. He isn’t someone she can count on when the chips are down. In a way, the set-up is not all that different from what we encountered in last week’s entry, Eden Lake. A professional young man and woman tread unwisely from the safety of civilization into nature, and encounter barbarous behavior of people less “evolved” than they are.
Killing Ground includes rape, the (off-screen) death of a child, and the murder and torture of innocent families and individuals, so there’s no doubt that it lives up to Savage Cinema label, but the quality that actually makes the film memorable is the sense, often found in these films, that life is meaningless, and death just one “wrong turn” down the road ahead.
At some point, fate has it in for us.
“We’re going to go for a little ride.”
Young physician-in training Ian and his girlfriend Samantha decide to go camping for the weekend. En route, she quizzes him on his knowledge of anatomy. When they get lost, however, he asks a stranger at a gas station for directions. The stranger suggests Gungilee Falls as a perfect camping site, and provides directions.
When Ian and Samantha arrive at that location, they see another tent perched on the beach, but no sign of the campers who put it up. They set up their tent and start to enjoy themselves. Meanwhile, the stranger, German, and his friend, close in, ready for a rerun of a murder spree.
It turns out, that just days earlier these hunters killed the family camping on the beach, after raping the teenage daughter, Em (Tiarnie Coupland).
Now, the strangers must erase all evidence of their crime by committing another terrible act.
Early in Killing Ground, Samantha tells a story about why she has never gone camping, at least since high school. She knew a boy whose tent caught on fire. This story suggests, perfectly, just how random fate is. A young man, with an entire future laid out before him, instead wasforced to reckon at a young age with his mortality.
This story sets the tone for the action of the film.
It suggests, perhaps, that man proposes but God (or nature, if you prefer...) disposes. All our plans and dreams may come to precisely nothing if we take a wrong turn, and head down a blind, dead end.
The story of the empty tent, and the destroyed family, only reinforces, strongly, this sense of cruel, purposeless fate. Young and vibrant Em goes camping with her parents, but suffers from bad dreams She sleeps outside her tent because of those dreams. Her parents go for a walk one day, and discuss “imagery rehearsal therapy” to help her overcome her nightmares. Specifically, this form of therapy will help the 16-year old “rewrite” her nightmares so they don’t come to terrifying ends.
This story, treated with great importance to Em’s (doomed parents) is a meditation on something that ultimately, doesn’t matter at all. Em ends up living a nightmare, raped and murdered by the hunters in the woods. All her parents’ plans for her future are immaterial. She has no future.
Nor do her parents.
Like the boy in the tent fire remembered in story by Samantha, Em’s fate is a reminder that tomorrow is not promised to us. We make grand plans -- career, family, retirement, vacations, even -- yet there is no guarantee beyond this moment; beyond the present.
The forces of destruction in the movie, the two hunters, are indeed terrifying too. They are sociopaths and therefore lack empathy.
They see people for how they can use them (Em, for sex, whether she wants to participate or not), and do not have the same boundaries as civilized people do. They give no consideration for Em or the infant. Being young and innocent isn’t a free pass to survive. These ignorant, unwashed brutes don’t value any lives, or any hopes and dreams, save their own. They don’t register anyone else as human.
They are completely and utterly conscience-less.
And yes, at the risk of stoking controversy, I believe that this plot-line is a deliberate commentary on modern hunters and hunting. I know hunting is a way of life for many. I realize that there is a whole hunting culture, especially in the South (where I live). I don't mean to disrespect anybody or their lifestyle, or tradition by exploring this facet of the film.
I would say that Killing Ground trenchantly comments on the pervasiveness of a pastime that involves killing another living being, when such killing is no longer, strictly-speaking, necessary. We live in a culture of abundance and plenty, so hunting isn't often a matter of necessity anymore; of having to kill to feed the family. Hunting is now known as a "sport." It is done for pleasure.
And yet there is nothing sporting about the guns used in this pastime, in 2017. It's not like it's an equal match between the instincts of an animal, and an AR-15.
But once you put a bullet in a living breathing animal, like a deer, is it easier to put a bullet into a living, breathing person; a woman, or a child? That's an underpinning in this film. The hunters see people as prey; they derive pleasure from raping and killing them.
The real question to consider here: does the modern act of hunting teaches us, on a basic level, to de-value the lives of other beings?
Because, make no mistake: the animals that modern hunters kill with their high-tech guns are capable of feeling pain. They bleed and suffer just like human beings do. If we can play God and end an animal's life, why is it different to end a human's life? These are the uncomfortable questions that Killing Ground, inevitably, raises.
The men in this film are so accustomed to killing that they have no compunctions about murder when it comes to women and even children. A camp site isn't a vacation area, it's the titular killing ground, one that the men return to...for satisfaction -- for pleasure -- and for sport. There's good hunting there, after all.
If modern, well-equipped hunters kill does or bucks without remorse -- as sport -- is it such a stretch for people like the villains in this film to beat a baby in the head? Hunters justify killing deer by talking about over-population, and matters like that. The hunters here are ex-cons who don't want to go back to jail. They have an easy justification, as well. They can't leave behind evidence.
And again, this is why I love horror films. They dare to raise matters and ask questions about things we tacitly accept, every day. They challenge us to rethink our ideals. They challenge us to examine and then re-examine our values.
Killing Ground features a high degree of tact, which is a necessity for material this grim, and neither the death of the baby, nor the rape of Em are actually seen. Of course, one can argue that by not showing them, Power has made his film all the more effective. We know what occurs, and are left to imagine (and visualize) the worst. It's upsetting.
This is important, because the stakes are so high for Samantha and Ian. The film makes the hunters seem all the more powerful, and death feel all the more inevitable, by telling two stories (in separate time periods) on the same hunting grounds. We know what the hunters are capable of, based on the suffering and deaths of the first family, and therefore know, as the film winds towards its conclusion, that the young couple can expect no sympathy, no quarter.
When faced with a situation like that, a person might collapse and surrender, as Ian does, thinking of no one and nothing but himself and his own survival. Or one might react like Samantha, who fights like Hell for herself, for Ian, and for the baby. Even when she is in extreme jeopardy, and facing her own mortality, Samantha manages to worry for the baby, and for her boyfriend. It turns out, she realizes, Ian doesn’t share those feelings. He runs off to the police, instead of helping her, or the baby.
Instead of fighting, in the moment, he flees to civilization to let others fight for him.
One might argue this course of action. One might say, unemotionally, that Ian did the right thing: letting the authorities handle the hunters. That act accords with law. But emotionally, his act is one of pure, shameful cowardice. He leaves his girlfriend to be raped by one of the hunters, knowing full well that she might be killed before he can return. When he sees her alive, the shame is written all over Ian's face. And Samantha, without saying anything, knows exactly the kind of man she is in love with.
The cruelest moment in the film, however, involves the death of hope. The baby, who -- as children always do in films of this type -- personifies the future. He has been battered and beaten, and dropped in the woods. But the body disappears for a time, and Samantha hopes against hope that Ian, a doctor, has rescued the baby, and saved his life. During the film's climax, however, he tells her he left the baby’s body in the woods too.
The baby’s ultimate disappearance, therefore, has no plausible explanation unless one remembers the exposition early in the film about how the area is occupied by wild pigs, who apparently eat anything and everything left behind by campers. We can put two and two together, and realize that the boars got the baby.
In this case, we can only hope the child died before the hungry animals took him.
Again and again, people ask me: how can I watch and like a movie like this? One with extreme violence, and death? Featuring rape and the death of innocence.
My answer is that films like Killing Ground don’t sugar coat human existence. They don’t wrap it up in bullshit, like happy endings. The cavalry doesn’t ride over the hill, just in time, to save someone who is good, or young, or innocent, at least not frequently. These films make us question our choices, our morality, and our traditions. And they don't try to be Oscar-bait in the process.
Films like Killing Ground remind us of how much of our lives is but an abstract construct; a delusion that we erect and rigorously maintain.
We believe in civilization, but once outside of populated areas, civilization is just an idea.
And not everybody carries the same moral code, when freed from the boundaries of civilization. Secondly, as noted above, Nature -- or God -- is under no obligation obey our self-proclaimed rules for behavior.
The first shot of Killing Ground is of an empty camp site on the beach; an insertion of man’s world upon nature. We set up our camps, our rules, and our philosophies in nature, but as I said, Nature itself is under no obligation to follow our edicts. We can establish a foothold in Nature, but we can't beat it.
This strange dichotomy is seen in Ian’s character too. By nature, he cares about himself. He's selfish. We see this in his extreme cowardice. But in civilization, he has selected a vocation in the medical field in which he is supposed to care about others. That ideal, however, is an inch deep.
Which value wins out, when push comes to shove?
Civilization -- Hippocratic oaths and the like -- are but lovely constructs that we cling to so that we can, in some way, delude ourselves about the finite nature of human life.
So Killing Ground is indeed a harrowing film, but it tells us something important about our existence. It raises questions about the rules we think define us, and our civilization.
Out in the woods, in nature, there is hunter and prey, and that's it.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
In “Test for Love,” we return to the planet Medusa, a world dominated by women.
Earth scientist Rudi Schmidt (Christian Quadflieg) has been returned to the underground city on Medusa, but is still considered untrustworthy, and unworthy of anything but menial labor.
Octavia (Christiane Kruger) remains suspicious, however, both of Rudi and Liz (Lisa Harrow). Medusa’s president, Clara (Dawn Addams) suggests that Liz should have a job, to distract her from Rudi’s schemes to return to Earth.
Accordingly, Liz begins to train as a spaceship pilot.
Liz is also given a hulking male domestic, Ercule (John Wyman), to keep her mind off of Rudi. Liz claims not to be attracted to Ercule, and short-circuits a “reality meter” with her thoughts to prove it. Clara agrees that Rudi should become her domestic.
Liz, meanwhile, must also complete with Nola (Veronica Lang), a Medusan female favored by Octavia, to get the piloting her position. Liz emerges victorious, and gets to choose her crew, including Rudi.
Together, Liz and Rudi plot to escape from Medusa in the patrol spaceship, but Clara has planned accordingly for any such betrayal. Liz’s vessel is rigged with a “dual” controls, so that Medusa can bring it back, at any time, remotely.
Liz and Rudi realize that their escape to Earth must wait for another day.
Our second Medusa-centric episode in a row -- “Test for Love” -- increases the series’ sense of intrigue, as Liz must navigate Octavia’s suspicions, and dispatch both a rival for her romantic affections (Ercule) and her career aspirations (Nola). Liz is successful in both regards, only to be handed a reversal in the episode’s final moments.
It’s interesting to think about this idea, but what we have here, in this obscure ‘70’s series, is some arc storytelling, as the characters move on parallel tracks of development.
One couple that is falling in love (an Earth couple) learns to navigate Medusa. The other couple -- Adam and Fulvia, of Medusa -- learns to contend with Earth morality. These two “fish out of water” stories are played against one another (as we’ll see next week, in the satirical “The Perfect Couple,”) but the whole affair develops as if the chapters in a novel.
The problem I detect, and which has harmed Star Maidens’ reputation, is that there is often an inconsistency of tone. The Medusa episodes are largely played straight. The Earth episodes are played tongue-in-cheek, mostly.
The result is a series that vacillates between silliness, and sci-fi plotting.
In “Test for Love,” the women of Medusa decide that Liz needs a man and a job to be happy on their planet. However, this society doesn’t seem to cherish freedom as much as some western countries do, on Earth. It is arranged for Liz to have Ercule -- John Wyman from For Your Eyes Only (1981) -- as her male plaything, and he is not her choice at all, despite his physical fitness.
To reject Ercule, Liz does what no woman of Medusa has ever done: she uses her thoughts to destroy a “reality meter,” a device similar, perhaps, to our truth detector. This sequence is the most bizarre one of the episode. Another Medusan is hooked up to the reality meter, and we watch her fantasize about half-naked men wrestling. Then Liz's turn comes next, and she tries hard not to visualize Ercule in this fashion, instead conjuring images of gorillas and other wild animals.
This episode gives Clara (Dawn Addams) a lot to do, and she is an excellent addition to the cast, Medusa’s commander-in-chief.
All through the episode, it looks like Octavia is the real danger, and that Clara doesn’t see through Liz and Rudi’s plans. Then, in the final moments of the episode, we see that Clara is a pretty smooth operator, and has left nothing to chance. She’s a fascinating leader character.
Next Week: “The Perfect Couple.”
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
While the U.S.S. Enterprise investigates the inhospitable, volcanic world called Excalbia, a mysterious event occurs.
A man who claims to be slain U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (Lee Bergere) contacts the ship and asks to come aboard. He shows all the mannerism of the real Lincoln.
Although Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is certain that this unusual being could not actually be Lincoln, he nonetheless beams him aboard, and with full presidential honors, to boot. This act angers Mr. Scott (James Doohan) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley), who both fear that the alien boasts malicious intent.
President Lincoln invites Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to beam down to the surface of Excalbia, even as a pocket of breathable atmosphere and hospitable land appears there. Lincoln also assures Spock that he will meet the greatest Vulcan in history, below.
Kirk and Spock beam down, and are confronted with a silicon life-form, an Excalbian named Yarnek (Janos Prohaska). The Excalbians, Yarnek reveals, do not understand the human concept of good and evil, and have enlisted Spock and Kirk to help them comprehend it better.
To this end, they have teamed the Starfleet officers up with Lincoln, and Surak (Barry Atwater), the Vulcan philosopher who led Spock’s planet to peace through logic.
Opposing these “good” beings is a team of great evil. These individuals include 21st century warlord, Colonel Green (Phillip Pine), the Klingon unifier, Kahless (Robert Herron), Genghis Khan (Nathan Yung) and the fiendish and sadistic Zora (Carol Daniels De Ment).
When Kirk refuses to participate in this staged contest, the Excalbians raise the stakes. They threaten to destroy the Enterprise unless Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock participate in their “drama.
At first blush, “The Savage Curtain,” by Gene Roddenberry and Arthur Heinemann seems like an unnecessary repeat of “Arena.”
In that story, Kirk must fight an alien starship captain, under the watchful eye of an advanced alien, a Metron, who has arranged the combat. In choosing not to kill, Kirk demonstrates his -- and humanity’s -- value system, and proves that the species has outgrown its infancy.
In “The Savage Curtain,” Kirk and Spock must fight a team of villains, under the watchful eye of another advanced alien, the Excalbian Yarnek, who has arranged the combat to “learn” about human concepts of good and evil.
Again, Kirk demonstrates humanity’s value system. One more fighting, and choosing not to kill, is the crucible by which a specie’s development is judged.
Yet some qualities clearly differentiate the two episodes. The Metron in “Arena” is haughty and arrogant, gazing at man as a primitive species. By contrast, Yarnek possesses a certain brand of innocence or naivete in his fumbling quest for knowledge. Although he goes about learning in absolutely the wrong way, Yarnek’s ultimate goal is indeed information; knowledge which he will share with his people.
Similarly, the “The Savage Curtain” contends, at least subtly, with the meaning and nature of hero worship. Captain Kirk meets one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln, and Spock encounters one of his: Surak.
The question, appropriately raised by Scotty and McCoy, is…can hero worship lead one to folly?
In this case, Kirk is willing to “follow” Lincoln to a planet surface that could instantly kill him. Kirk and Spock both admit, as well, to being beguiled, after a fashion, by Lincoln’s charm and wit.
Although Lincoln and Surak are defined in the episode as “good,” the episode also suggests what can happen when people follow even good leaders into danger because of loyalty, belief, or faith.
Kirk and Spock’s eyes are always open, however, and one true virtue of the episode is the way that Kirk gazes at Lincoln not just as a hero, but -- at the same time -- as an alien being making (hopefully peaceful) first contact. There’s great complexity in Kirk’s character on Star Trek, and this episode explores that complexity. He both honors and respects the historical Lincoln (and his avatar aboard ship), and simultaneously maintains a “distance” from that hero worship, considering the reality of the situation; the fact that Lincoln is an alien. How he bridges this paradox is pure “Kirk,” and his approach confuses the hell out of Scotty and McCoy.
“The Savage Curtain” is remembered by Star Trek fans, today, for its depiction not only of noble Surak, who developed and implemented the Vulcan ideal of logic, but for its introduction of Kahless, a Klingon leader who unified his empire. What seems a bit disappointing, at least today, is that Kahless and Genghis Khan are both viewed in two-dimensional terms, as “evil.” Clearly, Zora, who sadistically experiments on other lifeforms and the deceitful Green qualify as evil by most fair standards, but Genghis Khan? Kahless?
Are they truly evil? Or products of their time, and cultures?
Kahless simply hails from an alien race that the Federation has warred with (as we’ve seen in Star Trek: Discovery). This fact of heritage does not make him evil. Instead, he is the archetypal Klingon, a great warrior and leader from a warrior race. His people revere him. We know from the Star Trek films, and The Next Generation Era that Klingons are not evil. They merely possess different beliefs. It is disappointing for the Original Series -- which has often stressed the idea that Klingons and humans can become friends (“Errand of Mercy” and “Day of the Dove”) -- to simply label a member of this race “evil.”
Perhaps this is doubly disappointing, because “The Savage Curtain” reveals some genuine thematic complexity in Kirk’s final speech to the Excalbians. Yarnek professes confusion/disappointment that both good and evil forces resort to physical conflict. Because of this fact, he can’t discern which philosophy is which. He sees no operational difference.
Kirk sets Yarnek straight by noting that while the “evil” team fought for its own selfish reasons (survival and dominance), the “good team” fought to save the Enterprise and her crew. Kirk warred not for power or glory, or because he wanted to win.
He fought because innocent lives were at stake.
From Kirk’s speech, a crucial point is made. Good and evil are the same in terms of fighting, but different in terms of their goals. The sad thing, however, is that Kahless is not allowed to be viewed this way by the episode. He unified his people, and by that perspective would surely count as a great, unselfish good.
One facet of this episode that is not often discussed is the role of Mr. Scott. Whatever the third season’s alleged detriments, it is fair to state that Scotty, during this span, evolves to become a more well-developed and prominent character. In “The Savage Curtain,” he is right there, beside McCoy, offering vital counsel to Kirk, and showing a bit of rebellious spirit too. In another episode, “Turnabout Intruder,” Scotty takes charge in a difficult situation, and organizes a mutiny against a Captain Kirk impostor.
Throw in the (inferior) Scotty love story, “The Lights of Zetar,” and some excellent character moments in “The Enterprise Incident” and “Is There in Truth No Beauty,” and one can easily imagine a fourth season of Star Trek in which Doohan’s named followed De Forest Kelley’s in the opening credits. One can see, in the third season, Scotty ascending to join the Big Three.
Finally, there is a lovely scene in "The Savage Curtain" that re-iterates Star Trek's commitment to diversity and equality in the galaxy. Abraham Lincoln calls Uhura a "negress," and then apologizes for his selection of words. Uhura responds, sincerely and elegantly, that she lives in a world in which words such as that no longer carry the ability to scar. Kirk adds that everyone in the 23rd century has moved past prejudice to experience "delight" in who they are, and what cultures and ethnicity they represent. This was a powerful and affirming philosophy in 1969, and is so today, in 2017.
“The Savage Curtain does not leap to mind as a great or particularly innovative episode of Star Trek, but nor is it counted among the worst in the series. It’s a solid installment, and one that has influenced ensuing generations through the introduction of characters like Surak and Kahless.
In this way, perhaps, “The Savage Curtain” overcomes its broad similarities to “Arena.”
Next week: “All Our Yesterdays.”
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.