Horror Blogger Confession: While I usually drag Michael to see horror movies on opening night, a second viewing of Beauty and the Beast took precedence over a first viewing of The Belko Experiment this weekend. I mean, the remake of Beauty and the Beast was soooo fantastic the first time, and I was seriously craving something uplifting. Graduate school, after all, is stressful (this semester more so than last), our country’s being shit on by the most corrupt president and cabinet in U.S. history, and I’m kind of an anxiety head case as it is. So I really needed to see Emma Watson affirm that she wants much more than this provincial life before she forms a healthy partnership with a lovable, furry CGI figure whose horns and stature make him look like Krampus’s gentler, non-demonic doppelganger. I’m only human, and I love watching Lumiere, the talking Candelabra, sing about food. So I put Belko on the back burner and all was well.
For a day, or two. Today it occurred to me that I was shirking my horror duties, and anyway, I really wanted to see the film, despite the fact that it scored slightly under 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. So I took a break from reading a Tennyson poem about an immortal man who wants to die and dragged Michael to a movie in which – like many horror movies – characters have to boldly face the possibility of sudden, untimely, unwanted death. Despite the film’s unceremonious reception by critics and the public alike, I appreciated the film for its effort to philosophize about human behavior and its ability to depict how we rise up, unravel, or lash out when we’re threatened with the possibility of sudden, unexpected death. As I continue to explore the horror realm, I become increasingly fascinated with what horror films say about how we, as humans, face our mortality. I appreciated this film’s attempt to explore that question.
It’s just an ordinary day at Belko Insurance, a sequestered U.S.-run insurance agency located in a desolate area surrounding Bogota, Colombia. Suddenly, the seeming voice of God booms over the intercom and tells the employees two of the eighty employees need to die for the rest to live; if that doesn’t happen, more will be murdered. When nobody kills anyone else, heads start to explode. A “tracking chip” that the company required the employees to have installed in their head when they were hired (for their own safety, the company argues) explodes unexpectedly in certain skulls, sending bits of brain matter everywhere. The employees realize that the voice of God means business – it isn’t a prank – and the gory game ensues as many people lose their wit, their lives, or – perhaps worse – their humanity. I’m going to try to say what I’d like to say about the film without giving away any more of its details – but at this point, I make no promises!
You might, first of all, ask me to back up. What’s this implanting chips in heads business you’re talking about – you may be thinking. I’d like to address that question. I think the film did a fairly predictable but thorough job of making the scenario it wanted to explore logistically feasible; the facility was in the middle of nowhere, equipped with military grade metal security walls that were released to cover everything – windows and weaker walls. The internet was shut down and cell reception was intercepted. And that’s fine – I bought most of that. But of course, people can hide from bullets, and if people are being shot, someone in the building needs to be doing the shooting, which isn’t the case in this film and would detract from the killer’s Wizard of Oz/omnipotent presence.
The film’s answer to make their vision feasible was to have the employees walking around, unbeknownst to them, with these explosive head implants that could be detonated from afar that the company insisted on inserting for “safety” (in case of kidnappings, etc.) This was the only part of an otherwise decent film that made me cringe. After all, it’s not a futuristic film. In 2017, who’s going to find 80 people willing to get a tracking device inserted in their skulls just to work at an off the grid insurance company? Of course, pre-murderous rampage, being a Belko employee comes with a lot of benefits, but a brain implant? Lucky for me, weird elements of films like this that really bother some people don’t usually detract from my overall assessment of the film. I let it go, and suspended my disbelief as much as I could.
And these detonating brain implants did leave a lot of room for violence. Don’t get me wrong: this film isn’t on par with films like Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, films that make you think the director gets a weird high or sadistic pleasure from exposing bloody organs and making viewers cringe. But The Belko Experiment definitely takes us past the traditional level of horror movie gore, with plenty of exposed brain matter and jolting, stomach-turning scenes that will make even the seasoned horror veteran tempted to close her eyes (which I did, once). I can always judge a film’s intensity by how frequently and ardently Michael starts quietly muttering swear words next to me, and, happily, I got to hear a few during this film (though not as many as I heard during A Cure for Wellness).
What struck me about this film was less what it said about the human condition (if there is such a thing) and more what it says about our contemporary culture. First, I’m sure the film was being produced prior to the November election, but this is a film that wreaks with distrust for older, white men. The main character, Mike Pelk (John Ghallagher, Jr.) is an ardent pacifist with a high regard for human life who condemns the notion of killing a few to save the many. Pelk is a white male, but he’s young and has kind of a cuddly, teddy bear face and personality. Among a really diverse cast of men and women of all ages, the white male upper-management, including John C. McGinley’s super creepy character, Wendell Duke, turn out to be the most ruthless, self-serving members of the entourage. Sorry upper-class white males, but women and minorities are looking pretty fantastic in this movie compared to you. I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s culture talking through film. Especially in light of Trump’s campaign and the havoc he’s wreaked since his victory, we are less inclined to trust wealthy white men. Such generalizations may not be right, but the film, perhaps without meaning to, made our cultural wariness abundantly clear.
As for how people react to the situation, it’s pretty much what you expect. Almost everyone is afraid, but regarding fear, there are two general divisions of people: those who are able to maintain their calm, and those who lose their cool, and maybe their sanity. There are those who kill suddenly, as if by reflex, to save themselves (out of sheer panic), those who take control and are calculating, and those who try to preserve their own lives without hurting anyone else. And the film suggests, optimistically, that a significant contingent of human beings wouldn’t aggressively kill former co-workers and friends to save their own lives, but some would consider it, and a few would execute whatever actions were necessary to survive.
As for myself, I have some doubts: I may be a starry-eyed optimist, but I’d like to think if you took 80 people off the streets and put them in a similar experiment – they work together, get to know each other, and are then asked to kill each other – it’s unlikely that you’d find one who was willing to ruthlessly kill those he’d gotten to know the way the intercom voice demands the killing to happen in this film. I will go back to what Michael argues frequently and emphatically: we are not wired to kill. This resonates with me; if I had to take a life to save my own, (let alone many lives) I’m not sure I’d want to live after that, anyway. Nothing would be the same after I took that life, or those lives; I couldn’t go back, and couldn’t live knowing that I was only alive because I thought my life was more important than the lives of countless others. And I’m not an incredibly virtuous exception, I think, to the inclinations of the common person. One character in the film argues that in the end, everyone is self-centered, everyone is out for themselves. In a situation like the one The Belko Experiment creates, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But then, perhaps I’m an optimist.
Of course, it’s hard to really predict how I’d react in that situation; probably I’d be a blubbering child. Because the film emphasizes that the prospect of our almost immediate, unexpected death is incredibly scary. We become in situations like this. We become who we really always were, who we never realized we were, when we’re faced with decisions like the one in this movie. At least, the film seems to argue that. People who seemed like typical, nonchalant co-workers begin to assume, in some cases, definite roles. Sometimes we can predict those roles, and sometimes, we’re surprised.
At the very least, expect The Belko Experiment to keep your attention. The film follows the lead of classics like The Thing in that it gathers once-friends together and shows how they react in a a definite, isolated location when they’re given sufficient reason to distrust one another. To that end, the film definitely participates in a sort of “psychological experiment” trope, although it could investigate the question of human behavior under duress and paranoia with even more complexity. At the end of the day, it’s a good story that will satiate your craving for action and gore while also making some important points.