Monday, April 3, 2017

Office Royale

For many a dull reason, I do not often go to the movie theater to see films on the big screen. Time is limited, the experience is usually frustrating (don't get me started on how I was ready to break out into my best Class of 1999 Pam Grier-as-a-badass-robot-authoritarian when people refused to sit in their assigned seats at the packed house for Get Out), and most films will end up streaming or available via a handy Netflix DVD pouch (yes, I still use those) within half a year. In the time it takes to get to a theater, sit through decades of trailers, and make the trip home, I probably could have watched two or three films, all without the squeaky seats, sticky floors, and constant internal debate of whether it's better to suffer in silence through chatty neighbors' rudeness or risk getting beaten up by teenagers in trying to make a stand.

That being said, when a genre film comes out that looks fresh and representative of where I'd like to see film trends go, I often feel the need to give it my support. When I first saw the trailer for the James Gunn-written, Greg McLean-directed The Belko Experiment, I vowed (possibly audibly like a rude teenager) that I would go see that in the theater. I've long whined about the lack of office-centered horror, and while the premise was obviously inspired by many a Battle Royale-esque tale, those are my absolute favorite of all the tales. This was the TYPE of movie I wanted to see being made, so any way I could help that continue to happen (i.e., with a $16.25 weeknight ticket, yes, that's what it's like in Manhattan and I'm crying, not you), it felt like my very duty.

Quick Plot: Welcome to Belko, Inc., a U.S. based corporation that specializes in bringing business to South America. We're introduced to the Bogota-based office and its various employees, a mix of expats that range everywhere from a stoner janitor (Sean Gunn) to the cool and collected maintenance manager (Michael Rooker, shockingly NOT trying to kill people) to a newcomer clocking in on her first day and of course, the boss, played with intense corporate confidence by the always welcome Tony Goldwyn. While the film makes a pointed effort to give us enough of an idea of the sprawling cast to be able to follow multiple characters, the lead is clearly John Gallagher's Mike, a pleasant and morally-minded middle manager who sort of embodies what Jim Halpert might do in case of...well...

If you've seen the trailers, you know the gist: on a typical workday, Belko's walls are sealed and a god-like voice on the intercom orders those locked inside to kill two employees within an hour. The penalties will be severe, and it doesn't take too many tracers implanted in the back of staff members' heads to figure out this is no practical joke. People will die. The question becomes, rather quickly, who?

In many ways, The Belko Experiment came custom-made for me. About a dozen years ago, when I first saw Battle Royale, I became mildly obsessed with applying the setup to every possible scenario I might encounter (and a few years later, wrote about it here). Bored on the subway? IMAGINE IF EVERYONE ON THIS CAR WAS SENT TO AN ISLAND AND WE HAD TO FIGHT TO THE DEATH. At the time, I was teaching ESL in Korea to elementary and middle school students. IMAGINE IF MY CLASSROOM WAS DROPPED ON AN ISLAND AND--you get the point. 

Naturally, when I started working in an office, the game continued. Those who might remember my eons-ago review of Office Killer might recall how disappointed I was to see the titular setting barely used. On any given day, there are about a dozen products in my reach from Staples that could kill me. WHY IS THIS AN UNTAPPED RESOURCE FOR HORROR?

While The Belko Experiment doesn't fully embrace the possibilities of death-by-paper cuts, it does have a little fun with some creative weaponry (that is indeed one hardcore tape dispenser). At the same time, it seems to hint at ideas that it just doesn't have the time to fully flesh out. As we're introduced to Belko, we learn a little about the hierarchy, meeting the CEO in his sprawling office only to then see managers in their more modest but still private glass rooms compared to the presumed entry level workers in crowded cubicles. The movie gets one great joke about this in there, but the actual social order doesn't ultimately seem important come the chaos. Perhaps that's a point in itself, and maybe I should be thankful that I'm not just witnessing another sleek adaptation of High-Rise, but like so much in a 90 minute high concept huge cast horror, it just feels like there could have been more.

Not that there isn't quite a bit. As the horrific reality of the situation hits each staff member, McLean intensifies things to pretty wacky levels. Goldwyn's alpha male takes charge, utilizing the bloodthirsty talents of the ultimate a$$hole character actor John C. McGinley as the kind of guy who has probably been waiting for permission to stab his coworkers since the day of his first interview. The moral divide between the hunters and the pacifists gets a little muddled, but the top-shelf actors help to sell their positions pretty well. 

High Points
I'm not sure if it's James Gunn's script, quality actors, or the simple truth that introducing characters by their jobs can help to establish who they are incredibly fast, but there's something very satisfying about how the character introductions lay out such a strong foundation for where these men and women will stand when the chaos begins. Take Brent Sexton's Vince, the affable HR manager whose instincts to keep everyone safe and calm fit perfectly with his position...for a while

Low Points
While I appreciated the waste-no-time pacing, the standard downside of what was lost in that time crunch is VERY felt in a lot of areas. Take, for example, a minor character who is introduced as a strict no-nonsense pencil pusher who drops a pile of reports on the newbie's desk and demands, in a terrifying German accent, that they're finished by lunchtime. Boy could I not wait to see how SHE handled the upcoming crisis. Unfortunately, (MINOR SPOILER FOR A MINOR CHARACTER WHO GETS A BAD HAIRCUT AND NO NAME), nothing comes of her introduction. Come the big sacrifice, she's lined up with 15 other extras and shot accordingly. It feels like quite a missed opportunity.

Lessons Learned
James Gunn loves few things more than an elevator muzak gag

Flirting with a good-looking coworker on your first day of work may not seem like the best career advice, but if your office is suddenly subjected to a cruel homicidal experiment, it may just be the thing that saves your life

Cubicles offer very little sound protection

I enjoyed The Belko Experiment more than I can say it was a good movie. Much like his Wolf Creek films, McLean has an unapologetic mean spirit in his work, relentless in how he punishes his characters. Normally, that's something of a turnoff for the fairly happy person I consider myself to be, but the grand premise of The Belko Experiment helps to mitigate some of the ickiness I might have felt watching nice-enough people being put through such hell. It's a movie with a great setup, fast pace, and some deathly black humor that connected for me. 

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