The Belko Experiment is a brutal, uncompromising meditation on the actions people will take when faced with an ethically impossible choice. In James Gunn's upcoming film, a company's employees are held captive and told they must kill three of their coworkers, or else six will die. If you had to choose, what would you do?
That question provides the foundation for both the film and for debates that have haunted philosophers for ages.
The result, as suggested by the first trailer release, is a rising sense of panic, driving people to desperate, violent acts of self-preservation. The story idea came to Guardians of the Galaxy director #JamesGunn while he slept, eventually becoming a passion project that he translated to the big screen under the direction of Wolf Creek filmmaker Greg McLean.
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Explaining the origin of the screenplay on Facebook, Gunn wrote that he was, in fact, inspired by a number of real-life experiments:
"I had always been horrified and fascinated by tales of social experiments that transgress morality, whether it be those of Stanley Milgram, Unit 731, or TV's Big Brother. This was a chance to explore the extremes, but with fictional characters (and I still feel guilty, as I love them just like I love all the characters I write).
"How far would you have to be pushed to take an innocent life? And are your actions true expressions of what you profess to believe?"
A number of social studies can be compared to The Belko Experiment, and three in particular stand out: the Milgram Experiment, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, and human experimentation complex Unit 731. Each offers a horrifying insight into human behavior, with varying degrees of barbarity.
How relevant are these real studies to a gore-rich slasher movie, safely nestled away in the world of fiction? Could #TheBelkoExperiment happen in real life? Let's take a look at the inspiration to find out, if you dare.
The Milgram Experiment: Exposing Obedience
In July 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram created a social experiment to test human obedience when given orders by an authority figure. Just how far would subjects go if told to act by someone seemingly official? The experiment was created prior to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, with Milgram attempting to conclude how officers in the Holocaust could have followed inhumane orders.
To test this, Milgram set up three positions: the Experimenter, the Teacher and the Learner. The Experimenter was the authority, the Teacher the subject, and the Learner — unbeknownst to the subject — was an actor pretending to be another volunteer. Before the experiment, the actor and the subject would draw lots for their role (although both options said "Teacher," to add to the veil of deception).
The Learner was hooked up an electric shock generator, which supposedly delivered jolts ranging from a minor shock of 15 volts all the way to a potentially lethal blast of 450 volts. The Teacher – the real subject of the experiment – would then read a list of paired words to the Learner, whose job it was to memorize the pairs. Then the Teacher would read one of the words, and ask the Learner to recall its pair. If the Leaner failed, the Teacher was told to administer an electric shock, increasing the voltage for each incorrect answer.
Unbeknownst to the Teacher, the actor wasn't actually being shocked. A tape recorder played prerecorded sounds of agony to create the illusion of shock delivery. After a certain level, the actor would also start banging on the wall in protest. On some occasions, subjects were told the Learner had a heart condition.
If the Teacher hesitated in delivering shocks, the Experimenter would insist they continue, using four separate statements to test obedience:
- "Please continue."
- "The experiment requires you to continue."
- "It is absolutely essential that you continue."
- "You have no other choice but to continue."
The results showed that 65 percent of participants would obey these suggestions, delivering reprimands to the Learner which went all the way to the highest shock of 450 volts. Many participants questioned the experiment before this point, but continued with their actions when told to do so. Related to The Belko Experiment, Milgram's findings suggest that a large number of people will inflict pain on others if told to do so by someone in a position of authority.
Stanford Prison Experiment: The Psychology Of Power
Dr. Philip Zimbardo's study on perceived power, and its psychological impact, has become one of the most infamous social experiments of all time. Taking place in August 1971, a group of 24 male students were separated into roles of "prisoners" and "guards" at Stanford university.
The students chosen as prisoners were "arrested" in their own home, given mugshots and placed in a mocked-up prison. To add to the sense of lost identity, those designated as guards only referred to the "prisoners" by their prison number. Zimbardo himself oversaw the project as a designated superintendent.
The results exceeded Zimbardo's wildest expectations — and not in a good way. Both sides became so immersed in their roles that the guards subjected prisoners to psychological torture. Prisoners were forced to remove their clothes; their mattresses were taken; and they were forced to use a bucket as a toilet. All by fellow students playing roles in an experiment.
Worst of all, Zimbardo wasn't immune. He too was drawn in to the experiment, openly allowing the abuses to continue. It wasn't until his partner, graduate student Christina Maslach, told him to stop that he realized the severity of the situation.
After the study was cut short, it was revealed that a third of the guards not only became engrossed in their role, but demonstrated genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when they were told the experiment would be ending early.
Unlike the Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that "normal" people can commit acts of violence against others when given an apparent position of power, even when not explicitly told to do so. In a Belko situation, this could translate to those in management positions. Think about that the next time you omit "kind regards" when emailing your boss.
Last, but by no means least, Unit 731 was a truly barbaric and depraved example of how people can turn a blind eye to inhumane acts. This research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army was active during World War II, from 1937 to 1945. The human experimentation complex explored biological and chemical warfare on human subjects, and is thought to have affected up to 250,000 people, most Chinese prisoners, with tens of thousands of related deaths.
The covert operation included all ages, including infants, the elderly, men and pregnant women. Some of the sickening "experiments" included vivisection — where organs were removed from conscious patients without anesthesia — and the amputation of limbs to study blood loss. Male and female prisoners were also deliberately infected with diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, a feat achieved by forcing inmates to have sex.
Shockingly, once the U.S. uncovered the experiments, the physicians involved weren't charged with war crimes; many were granted immunity in exchange for sharing their results.
Could 'The Belko Experiment' Happen In Real Life?
The answer to the question has to be a resounding "yes." While some elements of The Belko Experiment are undoubtedly outrageous — for example, the corporation implants ticking time bombs into the employees' scalps — the aforementioned real-life experiments suggest humans would quickly take to violent behavior if faced with the the film's situation.
The question is: would you?