The Bloodiest Version of The Trolley Problem

Imagine, you are locked into an office building and a disembodied voice tells you and your co-workers that your only chance to survive is killing 30 of your 80 colleagues. Not a pleasant thought, right? This modified version of the famous Trolley Problem is the premise of 2016’s The Belko Experiment. Written by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and directed by Greg McLean, the movie focuses on the employees of the fictional company Belko Industries who are in this dilemma and have to figure out a way to survive this sick game. Watching the interviews with the cast and crew on the Blue-ray, I realized just how different everyone’s interpretation of the movie is. Writer James Gunn imagined the movie as a non-judgemental look at the different types of people and their coping mechanisms in this situation, Greg McLean, on the other hand, shot a movie that is a not so subtle criticism of capitalism and fascist/authoritarian tendencies. While this dissonance between the writers intent and the director’s execution might be the biggest flaw of the movie since it confuses the audience in regard to some characters, it makes the movie a whole lot more interesting and adds depth to the pleasure of seeing heads explode or being smashed in.

Spoilers ahead!

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as a “tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial rule.” Reading this I remembered the scene in The Belko Experiment where Barry Norris, played by Tony Goldwyn, assumes dictatorial power and divides the employees into two groups, one of which is to be killed to fulfill the demands of the Voice. Although he himself thinks that he is doing this out of sheer necessity, it is obvious to the viewer that he decides by arbitrarily selecting people that are either old or coworkers who have antagonized him. He sets up a group of trusted minions who he sees as his own, namely the employees with children under the age of eighteen, and justifies the murder of innocents by claiming to protect the parents’ kids. Besides this selection of survivors by dividing the group into different subgroups, the shots of his chosen victims look unsurprisingly similar to mass executions by fascistic regimes. Barry seems to be a commentary on how utilitarian views can quickly transform into a fascistic rule where an authoritarian leader decides who can live and who will die.

Especially interesting is how fast Barry changes his mind from killing out of perceived necessity to murdering everyone because they didn’t obey and escaped. He felt the power he had over someone’s life and is not willing to give this power up. Following this change of heart, it becomes apparent to the audience that Barry is not just trying to stay alive, although he claims to be, but just wants to retain his status in the group. It is also worth noting that Barry Norris was the COO of the company and one could read his behavior as a denial towards his loss of power due to the change of systems since he is no longer on top of the capitalist food chain but just one of the others. His sociopathic need to outrank his peers is expressed by his dictatorial rule over the rest of Belko’s employees.

An alternative option is given in the character of Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), the protagonist of the movie. He refuses to play the game altogether and opts for non-violent resistance against the oppressors. By rejecting the idea of the binary choice he is clearly the morally superior character and in the end is the one who gets out of the game alive. Multiple characters reference the supposed rise of primal instincts within the community in dire situations, but Mike demonstrates that one does not necessarily lose his humanity under pressure and shows the possibility of compassion even in the darkest of hours. Mike is not without flaws, though. He refuses to use violence against his enemies which results in the death of many people after he didn’t acknowledge Norris’ influence and the weakness of some of his coworkers. When they try to obtain all the weapons in the building, he chooses not to confront the fascist group although their intent to kill people is obvious. Only after the loss of Leandra (Adria Arjona) he stands up against Barry and fights him. After he won the fight, Barry tells him that Mike didn’t change a thing but Mike points out that Barry did neither. Both have right in the sense that both didn’t prevent any killings, but it is clear that Mike has kept his humanity through all of the shit he went through. His journey is complete after he kills the Voice and his guards, at least for now (please, make a sequel!).

Written on one of the walls in the office building is the slogan “business without boundaries”, introducing the audience to the anti-capitalist motifs throughout the movie. Although Battle Royale movies could be seen as a criticism of cutthroat capitalism just because of their premise, The Belko Experiment takes it a step further, setting the premise within a company and having many of the executives, a minority group that acquires power (guns) and wants to rule the other workers, mostly people they outrank in the corporate ladder.

The character most important to these themes is probably Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley). He submits to the system very soon, has no issue with killing people and is the first one to do so without acting in self-defense or involuntarily. He’s driven by the need to do better than anyone else, despite becoming less human and more gruesome and animalistic in the process. In the scene of the battle, it is shown that he is exhausted by the killing, and he even expresses remorse over the fact that he had to kill his friend. This begs the question, whether all of this is his fault to begin with since he is incentivized to kill and would be punished if he didn’t.

Alongside the two big themes of anti-fascism and anti-capitalism, the movie also depicts a world where science isn’t bound to ethics, and scientists can use innocent people to unwillingly participate in their experiment. The Voice turns out to be a scientist who just wanted to use real people for scientific research and admits that his findings are of no real use to humanity right now and that they’re only collecting data in case they might need it in the future. The Voice is a placeholder for humanity’s need for information and shows that some people will do anything to get data, however useless it might be. Luckily Mike fills his head with bullets instead of information in the end. The Final shot indicates that this was only the beginning of a much larger experiment (Seriously, make a sequel!).

Besides being a lot of fun for people satisfied by dozens of liters fake blood, The Belko Experiment is a neat little movie with good ideas and ideological conflicts that are fun to dissect while watching people’s heads explode.

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