The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
They have all turned aside,
They have together become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
No, not one.
— Psalm 14: 2-3 NKJV
“You either die a hero…or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
— Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
Those of us who subscribe to an orthodox Christian faith assent to a transcendent moral law that reflects the perfect being and will of our Creator. The mere reality of this knowledge, however, does not mean that humanity can perfectly live up to the goodness and perfection of God because of our brokenness. As the psalm above states, there is no one who does good, or as Paul put it, there is none who is righteous. We all fall short of the good moral Law of God.
However, being in a very individualistic society, we, Americans, often look at this narrative of the Fall and the broad infection of sin within all of humanity as something that showcases itself in individuals at the expense of systems that were created and/or infected by humanity’s brokenness. When the psalmist wrote “They have together become corrupt,” he is not just saying that a singular group of people got together and turned malignant. He is recognizing the nature of God’s covenant with His creation and how it affects the world systemically. Because people are broken, their systems are broken. Because the systems in this world are broken, humanity’s ability to live in perfect accordance with the will of God is impossible. Broken people living in systemic brokenness are unable to live up to our side of the covenant that God made with us.
So when the credits rolled on the James Gunn-penned horror film, The Belko Experiment, I was reminded of this truth about humanity: even the most righteous among us will go up against the systemic moral attrition of this world and find themselves, on the other side, emptied of their moral resolve.
Our morally-upright central protagonist, Mike Milch (played by John Gallagher Jr.), is faced with an impossible situation when he, and his co-workers, show up for what is supposed to be a normal work day at Belko. However, when the normal day at the corporate office begins, the building is locked down with no access to the outside except for the roof of the building and a strange voice comes over the building’s intercom giving cryptic instructions for those who are inside. The first command is for two of the 80 employees to be murdered or more will die at random. The warning is not heeded and a handful of employees die. The second command, then, is to murder 30 employees or 60 employees will be dispatched like they were the first time. From this point on, the employees find themselves divided by allegiances and their consciences. Mike Milch remains the staunchest proponent of what could be considered one of the oldest and most caveated commandments of all: thou shalt not kill. His boss, Barry, however, holds to the combined principles of self-preservation and a blood-soaked utilitarianism—kill the few to save the many (namely myself and those on my side).
However, the gauntlet that the mysterious intercom voice sends the employees through becomes a pretty apt analogy for the end of our moral fortitude in the face of a world where brokenness reigns. As the faceless corporate bodies begin to pile up, so do the principles that guide the actions of those who reject out and out murder for the sake of self-preservation. Even the stalwart Mike Milch finds a reason to abandon his moral principles when driven by a need for vengeance in the name of someone close to him, once the wizards behind the curtain are revealed. If the narrative of The Belko Experiment tells us anything, it is that, left to our own devices and dependent on our own will, we will end up succumbing to the world’s path of destruction, blood splatters and all.
This element of the film is existentially satisfying to people of faith who feel the tension of knowing what is right and wrong according to the good and perfect will of God—and assenting to and affirming that—and, yet, finding, amid hard choices, that sometimes there isn’t a right answer available to broken people living within a broken world. Belko represents the futility of relying on our own understanding and moral strength as limited creatures.
However, The Belko Experiment goes one step further by placing this larger analogical lesson within the framework of the beat down of current cooperate culture with its glass ceilings and soul-destroying banality of day-to-day work and literal compartmentalization of human endeavor. It is no surprise that the final competitive death within the doors of the office building is the bludgeoning of a person’s head with the commonplace tape dispenser.
While this imagery is darkly humorous, it also pulls together the strands of the more transcendent issues of absolute morality within a yet to be redeemed interplay of individual and systemic sin and the crushing existential and emotional blows that cooperate life delivers to the people that make up its cogs and gears. In both cases, the result is something less than human, looking either like animal or machine, respectively.
While individual sin and brokenness plays into both the abstract and practical concerns of the film, we would be remiss and lacking all compassion if we believed that moral fortitude and resistance to the banality and compartmentalization of humanity was solely dependent on individual actions. The world—and its systems—is out to break humanity to the point where we don’t recognize each other as human any longer, just like the cooperate structures are out to break people to the point of being automatons of efficiency and productivity.
While The Belko Experiment isn’t the most original or perfectly executed film, it points out in splendidly bloody detail the myriad of ways in which people can lose the very qualities that make them human, the very image that makes them creatures of a good and loving God. While the film’s final moments are found in the rather depressing depiction of futile hierarchical structures of cooperate “promotion,” we see more clearly than before how our discovery of what makes us human relies less on our advancement and more on one who can redeem the systems of the world and reverse the promised decree from ancient days: “cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”