Bad at-work craziness in ‘The Belko Experiment’

There is something unsettling about the building that houses the Belko company. Located near Bogota, Colombia, it pokes out of the ground like a shrine of unrealized dreams; a structure that seemingly was the first phase of what was going to be a burgeoning business community. Instead it is surrounded by, well, mostly nothing. Lot of grassland, some wild dogs and not much else.

Yet each day several dozen people, many relocated U.S. citizens, converge upon this building for their daily dose of mundane tasks. Do the work, collect the paycheck, go home. The company’s purpose, vaguely, is to help place American workers with corporations throughout the world.

Then one day there are deviations from the norm. Intense security checks at the entrance to the parking lot. A military presence. Workers native to Colombia told to go home. After that the day pushes on. Until the announcement comes.

Writer James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) has said in interviews he literally dreamed the concept of “The Belko Experiment.” It is a mix of cold corporate manipulations and perverse social tinkering with the ultimate question being: How far would you go to survive?

The announcement, piped in via an in-office PA system nobody seemed to know existed, delivers a chilling directive by The Voice: kill a few of your fellow workers, or more of you will die. Initially this is dismissed as a sick joke. But when metal shutters slam over the windows and escape is no longer an option, a shocking and bloody emphasis is added; meaning this is not a joke and whoever has hands on the levers definitely is in control.

Tony Goldwyn plays Barry Norris, the boss of this facility, and his stance of maintaining composure and keeping everybody on one path of calm and rational behavior is easily doomed to failure. While most of the employees cower and shudder on the border of panic, others break up into factions. Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr. from “10 Cloverfield Lane”) and his co-worker and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) go on a mission to see if they can summon some outside help. Milch logically believes that if the employees bow to this experiment they are all doomed anyway.

Norris is joined by the office creep Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley) and a couple of others who in their calculated reasoning assume it is best to be armed. This foresight can come in handy when things really get to the down and dirty final chapter of who will be the last ones standing.

Melanie Diaz plays Dany Wilkens, the new employee who is finding that this first day on the job is more hellish than she ever could have imagined. James Gunn’s brother Sean is Marty, a drug-addled employee whose paranoia offers some moments of levity and silliness.

Then there is Michael Rooker as Bud, one of a two-man maintenance staff who unfortunately provides little impact on the bloody proceedings.

The Big Brother element is most chilling. It seems any strategy the workers resort to is detected by the ubiquitous camera coverage in the building, and The Voice, seeing all, coolly advises that these efforts will only lead to more death. Ominously the only ones who seem to be getting free reign over their plans are Norris and his increasingly dangerous and hell-bent-on-surviving group that has all the artillery.

This all is leading to the inevitable fest of spurting blood and a body count that mushrooms. Who lives and who dies offers only a part of this study of human nature. What Gunn also explores is who can maintain any compassion under such dire circumstances.

Adeptly paced under the direction of Greg McLean, “The Belko Experiment” is effective horror, as it taps into a common supposition held by employees that they are seen only as evil and costly necessities by employers who are always seeking ways to find them expendable. Then it takes an uncompromising look at human behavior when it is reduced to its lowest denominator: survival at all costs.