Editor’s Note: Today we bring you not something a little different than our usual Sound Off for film review; today, we bring you an academic critical essay, and the title says it all. Yes, there will be spoilers. Enjoy!
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Madman
Sitting in the theater waiting for The Belko Experiment to begin, I first was shown a preview that featured Beat Kitano Takeshi, who starred as Kitano-sensei in Battle Royale. Ironically, my interest in The Belko Experiment was largely the accusation it’s a facile imitator of both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, so that aspect was my focus. Maybe you don’t enjoy films the way I do, but I had fun sitting in the theater contemplating principals of theodicy like privatio boni while people went primitive on each other.
The Belko Experiment’s negative criticisms follow in the tradition of online fan debate wherein The Hunger Games series is scorned for stemming from the Battle Royale series, and both are condemned for being derivative of The Running Man and Fight Club. Such rebukes tend to be more reactionary than thoughtful, in the hopes of dismissing one or the other as though appreciating dystopian stories is a zero sum game of the kind featured in these films. Blumhouse Productions even embraced the pre-release comparisons and drove them further by using Verdi’s Requiem: Dies Irae — used to such effect in the Battle Royale soundtrack it is synonymous with the film for many moviegoers — in most of The Belko Experiment trailers.
One of Belko’s stars, Tony Goldwyn, has gone on record stating that the film “resonates in Trump’s America.” The Running Man, released in 1987, portrays the United States in 2017 overseen by a crass reality TV producer famous for orchestrating violence. He riles his audience using call and response techniques as in church. He is always being harassed by the Department of Justice, rampant police brutality is swept under the carpet, and it’s easy enough for entertainers to get on the phone and say, “Operator…get me the President’s agent.” I’m unsure if it’s too close to home, or respectably prescient. Either way, as dystopian predictions go that’s a pretty high bar. How does Belko measure up, especially in light of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale?
The set-up for The Belko Experiment is familiar and comfortable. We’re introduced to a group of workers ranging from young to old, of all sorts of backgrounds, in a contemporary office environment. Belko employees work in Bogotá, Colombia, South America, assisting U.S. companies in the region. Soon the compound goes into lockdown, and — isolated from the outside world — the employees are ordered to choose a handful of their fellows for death. The employees all have tracking devices implanted in their skulls due to rampant hostage-taking in Bogotá, but the devices turn out to actually be explosives, which will detonate if the death orders are not carried out. Somebody is watching their every move to ensure compliance, but we don’t know who or why.
Battle Royale is set in the near future of Japan, when society is ravaged by a collapsed economy and mass rebellion of the youth. Any of that sound familiar? To fix everything the government passes the BR (Battle Royale) Act, which states that each year one of many nominated school classes will fight each other to the death for the entertainment of adult audiences. The entire truant high school class 3-B returns for a special end of the year excursion, only to be gassed on the bus along with their new teacher. They wake to find themselves briefed by former teacher Kitano-sensei, who retired after being stabbed by one of them and now wants revenge. The lone survivor will be declared winner.
The Hunger Games is also a future dystopia set in the nation of Panem — whose name comes from the Roman panem et circusens or bread and circus politics of gladiator games — existing almost a century after war destroyed most of the population. Panem is also overseen by reality show producers who keep the masses distracted with games of life and death. This story differs in that Panem is built around the games so the combatants, called tributes, ease into the process with weeks of training after selection. A boy and girl chosen at random from each of Panem’s 12 districts, ranging in age from 12 to 18. This year, however, Katniss Everdeen of District 12 throws things off by volunteering to replace her sister. As with Battle Royale, every year a single surviving tribute is declared victor.
All three scenarios are fertile for carnage, but The Hunger Games and Battle Royale are generally viewed as offering incisive social commentary. The Belko Experiment, on the other hand, has met with a refrain of not being able to justify having so much death without deeper social commentary, due somewhat to director Greg McLean’s 2005 splatter flick Wolf Creek being held against him in Belko’s reviews. Clearly, the Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man turned out to be unintentionally deep three decades after the fact — which doesn’t retroactively negate the onslaught of bad reviews that killed it at the box office — but what film can be expected to be so on-the-nose?
So let’s look at what is being said, or left unsaid. At Belko, an unseen interloper we only know as The Voice interrupts the workday with this announcement via intercom system: “All employees, please lend me your attention.” As they all look up at the speakers Roberto, portrayed by David Del Rio, plays the office clown quipping, “Hey, it’s Jesus!” How right he turns out to be, metaphorically.
As we are told by Tyler Durden, mastermind of both Fight Club and Project Mayhem, “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?” Durden goes on to say, “You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.”
There is nothing new about speculative films drawing a direct line between our parents, deities, and totalitarian authority figures such as Father in Equilibrium, and the Fathers political party of Wild Palms. What is crucial here is the representation of societal authorities as parental figures, especially given the lack of agency youth have in negotiating the world as dictated by adults. The youth of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale exemplify this struggle, and that might be mirrored in the employee hierarchy of The Belko Experiment.
In all three, the inciting incident happens when the authority figures are not authoritarian enough in their role of parent/God. Example 1: managers at Belko Industries permitting debate that allows them to miss The Voice’s deadline, leading to exploding heads. Example 2: the Dark Days that nearly destroyed Panem in the past. Example 3: the revolt of Japan’s children. A more pointed case is that of the teacher who took over Kitano-sensei’s class after he resigned, murdered by the paramilitary team running the show. Prior to being gassed on the bus with his students, this teacher was palling around with the kids, and permitted them to run roughshod. “We have here a failure of an adult,” Kitano-sensei admonishes while pointing to the corpse. “Be careful you don’t become an adult like him.” Whether he means for class 3-B to apply moral rigor, or to die before becoming adults, or to not get killed like that other instructor, well, that’s up to interpretation.
In The Hunger Games, acts of nature turn against the combatants as various “acts of God.” More than just supplying cool and memorable effects sequences, this brings us back to “God doesn’t like you.” Under the direction of official Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane, we see the world turn against tributes as firestorms rip through a forest, night and day become longer or shorter, mutant animals spring to life, and more.
Likewise, Battle Royale events feature danger zones that shift on a regular schedule. If you wander into the wrong area, the explosive collar around your neck will detonate, much like the Belko implants. Infection, food, and access to clean water are also killers here, as in the Hunger Games, both of which take place over days. At Belko, though, with only hours or even minutes to meet the increasing demands of the omniscient Voice, nature as the hand of God doesn’t have a chance to shine as a killer.
Geographic isolation plays a huge role in all three films. Class 3-B is contained to an island far out at sea. As with the Belko employees, Katniss and Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ male counterpart from District 12, are foreigners in the Capitol, eventually finding themselves dropped into a secure environment man-made for the Hunger Games. There is pervasive hopelessness among the combatants, particularly those forced so suddenly into the Battle Royale. Suicide claims four of the students almost right away as they realize they are beyond help.
Some, though, revel in the freedom this provides, however stoically. “Nobody’s going to save you. That’s just life,” says Mitsuko, formerly a creepy killer child who now excels at using every trick in the book to kill with impunity. For those who don’t start off deranged, though, it’s all about hope.
Peeta despairs from the outset because Katniss’ skill with a bow is known to be unmatched in District 12. Even the odds-on favorite from District 1 falters when confronting Katniss, not just because of her skill, but he’s savvy enough to realize her charitable steak and flare for entrances have made her a fan favorite, and the Hunger Games is about good TV. Not too long after that he’s toast.
When President Snow, ruthless dictator of Panem, ponders, “Why do we have a winner?” his protégé Seneca Crane is clueless. “Hope” is the answer Snow is attempting to prompt from him. To clarify his point Snow elaborates, “It is the only thing stronger than fear.”
It is those moments of hope in the abyss of hopelessness that are the most excruciating The Belko Experiment has to offer. Not the blood spray, the body wounds, or any physical damage, proving Snow’s wisdom. The outbreak of violence at Belko leads to intimate discussion between the workplace couple of Leandra (Adria Arjona) and Mike (John Gallagher, Jr.) about the nature of humanity, or more precisely, her views regarding a human’s biological compulsion to survive at all costs. This grim turn lays groundwork for a devastating set up at the end, wherein the couple miraculously survives and Mike, ever the optimist, believes they are surviving together only to find one must kill the other.
Ultimately the filmmakers avoid such a scenario, which could have been gut-wrenching, and I can’t help feeling they chickened out. Then again, they would have trouble avoiding the Malinche trope in this “significant others against each other” outcome, and instead of criticizing a missed opportunity I would instead likely be charging the filmmakers with supporting misogynist stereotypes.
The Belko Experiment is much more minimalist than its dystopian peers, both production-wise and in storytelling, but Battle Royale gets to its philosophical point much more quickly. According to Mitsuko, “Why not kill? Everybody has their issues.” Battle Royale doesn’t offer much more esoteric discussion of survival as there is of trust, motivation, and blame. Beyond these one-off musings, much of the philosophy behind The Hunger Games and Battle Royale lays with their rogue authority figures, and in their casting.
Beat Takeshi Kitano plays Kitano-sensei, and his casting in the role carries a lot of weight. Kitano rose in Japanese entertainment as part of the comedy duo The Two Beats, like Robin Williams successfully jumped to serious film with 1989’s controversial Violent Cop, which had all the ramifications for Japanese cinema that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had in the United States. At one point he was beating the prime minister in polls of who the Japanese public would rather see leading the country. The motorcycle accident that left Kitano with a limp and facial tic only served to boost his street cred as a bad-ass.
His The Hunger Games counterpart is Woody Harrelson, not necessarily a luminary of comparable stature, but still a counter-culture star vying with pretty much nobody but himself to become the Dennis Hopper of his generation. Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernathy, the only previous Hunger Games victor from District 12, who is brought in to coach the District’s new tributes.
Harrelson’s notorious off-screen antics, and ties to drug law reform decades before it was acceptable, lend credence to his portrayal of Abernathy as a debauched shadow of greatness struggling with vices. At the same time, he’s got the hard glare of somebody whose real-life father is in prison for murder, one of the reasons Oliver Stone cast him as serial killer Mickey Knox in Natural Born Killers. We see flickers of jaded rage that feel very real as he first tolerates his new pupils, then cuts his losses with Peeta to focus on audience-favorite Katniss, like a parent forced to choose which child will survive. He does not dote on Katniss, instead approaching her from a stance of tough love. For me, Abernathy’s interactions with the District 12 tributes were some of the most compelling scenes in the movie. Despite that he clearly dislikes the system and the prospect of becoming attached to more teens the system will kill, he doesn’t actively oppose the system.
There is a connection between the female leads and the rebel authority figures in both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, but all we have at Belko is Wendell Dukes the perv, creepily performed by John C. McGinley, constantly hounding Leandra. Does this add much to the film? No, other than acknowledging workplace harassment exists while establishing Dukes as a bad guy in the quickest, cheapest way available.
Although Leandra shuts him down at every turn, she doesn’t get the chance to confront and destroy Dukes in the epic way aspiring athlete Takako of class 3-B does with her own stalker. “Come at me! Every inch of my body will resist you!” she yells, shortly before repeatedly groin-stabbing him in one of the most cathartic kills cinema has to offer.
Katniss, conversely, endures rumor spreading and unwanted public displays of affection from her supposed hometown ally, Peeta. Why put up with it? He realizes his only chance of survival is to glom onto her skyrocketing public image in the wake of the altruistic suicide of volunteering to be a tribute. However charitable her reasons, watching Katniss — who is easily the strongest person in all three films — publicly play along with the undesired romance left me shaking my head.
Even so, it feels like her thoughts on the matter were given more consideration than Leandra, who contends with a more clear menace in Dukes. As for Dukes standing against the system, however slightly, in the footsteps of Abernathy or Kitano-sensei…um, no. McGinley’s cultural cred? He’s been in a lot of cool films and TV shows, but the most telling connection might be his role in Office Space.
Unlike Abernathy, Kitano-sensei takes his disdain for the system to another level. When the insurgent students’ plan to wreck the military’s computer network comes to fruition, Kitano-sensei coolly resolves the issue, treating the soldiers with the dismissiveness he showed his former students. His mind games, although small, are leveled against the soldiers and class 3-B alike. At one point he even bucks Battle Royale protocol by intervening to save Noriko. A similarity between Kitano-sensei and Abernathy is that while he exhibits micro-rebellions, his actions support the system more than hindering it. Another is that his scenes tend to be show stealers; just search “WTF Battle Royale ending” in Google.
For Belko’s top manager Barry Norris, played by Tony Goldwyn, guns are are the currency of control. He and the rest of the management cronies don’t subscribe to using subtle manipulations or psychologically outmaneuvering the other employees, as Kitano-sensei might. Evan the security guard has the egalitarian notion that keeping the guns locked up makes everyone safer, by keeping them equally unarmed. The fact that Evan himself still has the gun issued to him as part of his job not only undermines his argument, but leads to others like Norris growing fearful and covetous.
Unlike Abernathy and Kitano-sensei, or even Wendell Dukes, Norris plays the experiment’s guiding force of violence, not a benevolent, if flawed, mentor. He is also a veteran, but of the actual military rather than survival games. The political import of Goldwyn’s casting would be his long-standing role as president of the United States on Scandal, which in and of itself makes a statement. He’s also no stranger to dystopia with his previous role of Andrew Prior in both Divergent and Insurgent.
Just as the Divergent series is an adaptation, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are themselves adaptations of novels, and in general have been received favorably by fans of the corresponding novels. The Belko Experiment has no blueprint that was first proven popular with fans or critics, despite claims it copied The Office, Office Space, and the aforementioned films. What’s more, all productions in the chain of criticism — extending back to Fight Club and The Running Man — are adaptations of other source material including comic strips, short stories, BBC productions, and novels, while The Belko Experiment is the only original screenplay in the lot.
Writer James Gunn, of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, was originally married to star of The Office Jenna Fischer, and perhaps this was originally intended as a vehicle for her to segue from TV comedy to major motion pictures. Gunn withdrew from directing the project back when it was originally greenlit due to the fact he was going through a divorce from Fischer, and spending a year orchestrating scenarios in which friends and lovers are forced to kill one another was too harrowing a prospect at the time. The potential connection to The Office, or more to the point Fischer, may have had just as much to do with it.
To elevate comparison to conspiracy theory it has been suggested Daryl from The Office is one of the survivors we see on a security monitor during the film’s closing shot. If so, groovy, but I missed him among the forty-odd screens full of people, so I can’t speak to that. The underlying idea, though, is Daryl’s cameo (if it exists) means The Office itself is a Belko Industries experiment.
In my opinion, a scene in Battle Royale actually comes closest to mimicking The Office, even though it was created prior to both the BBC and U.S. versions. The BR training video students are forced to sit through has the feel of the most absurd Human Resources moments in The Office. Battle Royale has been around for 17 years and that scene still cracks me up! Blends of comedy and horror put some viewers off, but humor prompts physical reactions just as horror does, and the two work well in concert to plunge audiences off unexpected cliffs. The Hunger Games sidestepped both by focusing on drama and world building.
If there is evidence of plagiarism in The Belko Experiment — or, as unfavorable reviews have called it, “The Office fan fiction” — it could be found in the arrangement of characters, but given the number of them this could be coincidental. In fact, that is the film’s primary weakness: there are too many people to keep track of, and therefore care about. The Hunger Games has 24 tributes, the Battle Royale’s class 3-B has 42 students, but there are 80 Belko employees, and we hear from a lot of them. James Gunn always ensures there’s a quality ensemble cast to work with, but even so there’s no way to manage the number of people on screen effectively, nor any plot requirement for so many.
The Belko Experiment’s attempts at cultivating humanity are top-heavy, with most of the comedic moments and backstory packed into the first act, whereas the other two films invest in revealing character via action all along, building toward greater understanding of them as people throughout. This means that as the situation deteriorates at Belko, a counter-intuitive apathy sinks in.
Probably the most successful storytelling in these three films can be found in The Hunger Games. Of course, that had a budget over fifteen times higher than The Belko Experiment, with more than an hour of extra screen time to develop both plot and characters. However, just as weaknesses in The Belko Experiment are not the fault of The Hunger Games team so, too, are the Belko filmmakers not accountable for The Hunger Games having dream-come-true resources. Those making decisions at Blumhouse Productions knew full well their budget would cause time constraints, resulting in difficult creative choices.
How do the endings stack up? As with all other components, the Belko filmmakers take a more straightforward approach, while the teams of Katniss/Peta and Noriko/Shuya are given room to use wits to trick their respective game masters.
While suicide was the initial response for many forced into Battle Royale, it is saved until the climax of the Hunger Games, when Seneca Crane issues a rule change announcement à la The Voice. Rather than play the game and kill each other as the final contestants, Katniss and Peeta use the aegis of their “star-crossed lovers” theatrics as an excuse to take suicide as a way out of the predicament. Crane feels he has no choice but to back down and let them both survive, a first in the Hunger Games. Riding the train back to District 12, Katniss and Peeta face the windows with thousand-yard stares, no longer who they once were. Although they cannot see it, Crane delivered hope just as he was ordered, but did he over-deliver?
President Snow seems to think so, and forces him to eat crow — or mockingjay as the case may be — with the same poison nightlock berries Peeta and Katniss threatened to eat. You’ve gotta love that twist, although like so many bad guys we only really see Snow hurting his own subordinates, leaving him without the formidable feel of, say, Kitano-sensei, who slays students in front of us.
Yet Kitano-sensei might have the softest side of all the authority figures here. Norris launches the Belko killing spree at the thought that his children could be made fatherless, and Kitano-sensei is similarly motivated by children. Not his own child, mind you, as his relationship with his daughter is adversarial at best. The linear story of Battle Royale ends with Noriko and Shuya entering the world after faking their deaths, no longer students, each with a weapon, suggesting adulthood is the real BR. It is only afterward that we have a scene which unveils the emotional core of the film: the relationship between Kitano-sensei and his favorite pupil, Noriko.
How extreme is his affection for her? It seems more fatherly than anything, but we never find out as he, too, dies. The epilogue flashback sequence reveals events prior to the Battle Royale. They stroll along a creek and he licks an ice cream cone. All is idyllic until Noriko, at this point his only pupil after the student rebellion, has a confession.
“The knife that stabbed you, to tell you the truth, I keep it in my desk at home. When I picked it up, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. But now, for some reason, I really treasure it. That’s our secret. Just between us.” Simultaneously the illusion of her innocence is shattered, and he has been made vulnerable by being too cozy with students, failing to be a proper authority figure even when he only has a single student. It takes him a moment to gather himself after this bewildering and wounding admission. “Tell me,” he says, “in this moment, what should an adult say to a kid?” The question seems to be both accusation and admission of helplessness.
Noriko’s secret obsession isn’t quite so disturbing or baffling in light of Nietzsche’s observations that “What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives…” and “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Children become adults; the previous generation of adults perishes. We become God.
Therefore if God dislikes us, as Tyler Durden suggested, then we dislike us. At the end of the day, when given the choice, average citizens in dystopian society instead desire to see themselves as those in authority see themselves: wielding power as extensions of the system. That is how the soldiers enforcing Battle Royale are able to handle abuse from Kitano-sensei and others, how Belko’s managerial team can rush to accept their savage new “terms of employment,” how the Capitol’s citizens and troops can starve the rest of Panem by indulging in nonstop gluttony. Sitting in the theater watching it all play out on screen was unsettling, because it reinforced what I haven’t been willing to accept about so many connections on social media in the current political climate.
The climax of The Belko Experiment doesn’t explicitly comment on that, instead focusing on the struggle between Norris and Mike. Our first glimpse of the Hunger Games’ savagery is a pre-game show style clip of one tribute bashing in another’s head with a rock. “This is the moment you never forget. When a tribute becomes a victor,” the commentators say with reverence. This primitive head bashing is echoed in the experiment’s conclusion as Mike narrowly turns the tables on Norris, repeatedly smashing his skull with an oversized tape dispenser, as depicted on the promotional posters.
During the theatrical release of The Ring I watched audience members exit after the leads recovered Samara’s remains and put them to rest; those who left missed the terrifying final sequence, entire point of the story, and real resolution. Likewise, a chunk of The Belko Experiment’s audience did not see the actual ending of the film. We reach the conclusion prescribed by the experimenters so, according to expectations set up for the characters, it would seem the story is over. There is, however, a further final scene in which the experimenters themselves are confronted by Mike.
Just as Seneca Crane is forced to commit suicide, and Kitano-sensei commits a modified suicide-by-cop via Shuya and Noriko, The Voice must also die. Although he doesn’t technically die by his own hand it is his success in molding Mike into a remorseless killer that leads to The Voice’s death, not unlike holding a gun to his own head.
Forcing people into a corner in turn forces them to rebel against those circumstances cornering them, which is the same biological imperative to survive Leandra expounded on earlier. The experimenters just didn’t anticipate it applying to them. Or did they? The film closes as we slowly zoom out from a monitor showing Mike emerge to scream directly into into the security camera, his youthfulness shorn away. We then realize he occupies just one in many banks of monitors, all depicting similarly bloodied people we can assume are survivors at the other Belko worldwide facilities referenced earlier in the story.
We hear a new voice state this is the end of Phase 1 and calling for Phase 2 to begin, suggesting even The Voice and his team were also test subjects for an even higher order of social scientists. Remember to watch for Daryl from The Office at this point!
Overall, The Belko Experiment delivers even in the face of such stiff dystopian fight-to-the-death competition. My favorite film of the trio remains Battle Royale, but that is not is by no means a put-down. The real question is: by the end of this, are we more than a bread and circus audience cheering the passing drama of death and torment among strangers?
Beyond just ruminating on dystopian psychology, The Hunger Games and Battle Royale cultivate empathy for societal strata denied agency, while The Belko Experiment inverts that process. Everyone left inside the Belko compound to struggle and die is a “first-world” citizen, whereas the “locals” of Colombia take the day off from work. The compound itself has the look and feel of an internment camp. Here the U.S. citizen is a foreign immigrant being exploited beyond the bounds of justice. Perhaps the most gratuitous example of this commodification is American songs remade in Spanish for the film’s soundtrack, which in the context exploitation narratives throws cultural appropriation into the mix. The film quite literally says in every way possible: “Here is what it would be like if it were happening to you!”
Rather than engendering a sense of kinship by putting us in the shoes of immigrants within our borders, we seem to have missed the message entirely. The fact much of the audience has a blind spot when it comes to these elements could be chalked up to research bias, as we are the ones propping up the real world Belko-style exploitation of others daily, and why should we want to clearly see what the film’s subtext says about us? When given this choice apparently we also desire to see ourselves as those in authority see themselves.
Or, as exemplified by the following conversation…
Seneca Crane: “Everybody likes an underdog.”
President Snow: “I don’t.”