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Film

‘GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’ HELMER JAMES GUNN DIPS HIS QUILL IN BLOOD

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: John Gallagher Jr. as Mike Milch in ‘The Belko Experiment’ Rated: R; Grade: B+

I take notes during screenings. It is part of a creative and critical exercise, allowing me to document impressions that, truth be told, I rarely refer to when composing my reviews. I tend to remember and recall quickly the necessary bits, while the asides that fail to cross over from the notepad into print are usually just sucked back into my ever-flowing stream of consciousness.

But halfway through a weekend viewing of the new James Gunn-penned thriller “The Belko Experiment” from director Greg McLean (writer-director of the two “Wolf Creek” installments and a recently announced sequel), I wrote, in all caps: THIS IS HOW IT ALL BEGINS.

That sounds like a grand and portentous pronouncement, and I suppose it is to an extent, because “The Belko Experiment,” the latest freak show in the Blumhouse Production line—directly referencing “The Purge” franchise with nods to even darker indie fare (Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next”) and the international bloodlust of Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale”—captures the dripping, sticky red dawn of dystopia.

In a remote corporate high-rise in Bogotá, Columbia, American workers find themselves locked down in their facility with an ominous voice broadcasting over the building’s intercom, informing them that they have to start murdering their coworkers in order to survive. Immediately, sides emerge. Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), a rational engineer with a strict moral code, seeks to save lives and consider options other than succumbing to violence, while the company COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), a smooth functionary, adheres to a capitalistic model, measuring and weighing the choice as nothing more than a rather harsh bit of downsizing.

At the start of the day, there are 80 employees in the facility, but McLean and Gunn narrow the focus down to a handful of key faces (John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, and Gregg Henry are the most recognizable) that quickly align with either Mike or Barry. As a social horror experiment, we recognize the ways in which race, age, and class impact the death order, and much like their Blumhouse cohort Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), the creative team acknowledges a certain debt to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” but they are less interested in getting bogged down in the specifics of sociopolitical discussions. This is a workplace episode of “The Purge,” with a looming scale of mayhem on the horizon.

Gunn seems interested in positioning himself as the next Joss Whedon, who laid down the blueprint for a cheeky horror fantasy with “The Cabin in the Woods” (directed by Drew Goddard), as a precursor to his Marvel debut with “The Avengers” (even tapping his Thunder God for a role as one of the doomed cabineers). “The Belko Experiment,” cut from a similar pattern, spotlights Gunn’s side gig as a shepherd in the Marvel fold with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and its upcoming sequel, indulging his own alternative fantasies with members of his comic book ensemble in tow (brother Sean along with Michael Rooker).

The main difference between “The Cabin in the Woods” and “The Belko Experiment” is Gunn doesn’t appear as interested in a gaudy reconfiguring of mythic horror tropes. There’s none of the winking namedropping (the homages to Lovecraft) or the overt genre gamesmanship (used so effectively in the first “Scream”) at play in this “Experiment.” McLean shoots in a lean and efficient manner, mimicking the business-like approach employed by Barry and his underlings.

But, as I said, this is how civilizations start to crumble. Whenever choices become binary—black or white, kill or be killed—that’s the sign of the apocalypse, and “The Belko Experiment” captures just one instance in what probably feels like a worldwide tournament of murderous madness.

Movies like this work best when, once the premise is established, they simply go about the task of achieving their goals in the most straightforward means possible. That’s the only way to survive, right?