Sony // 2010 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // August 30th, 2010
Everyone has a breaking point.
The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) is one of the more famous behavioral science experiments of the late 20th Century. About two dozen young men were tasked with role playing guards or inmates at a makeshift "prison." Although there were ground rules and researchers were on hand, the experiment quickly got out of hand, with many of the men playing "guards" taking it all a bit too seriously, and the "prisoners" becoming more demoralized than even their real-life counterparts would be. It didn't help that the researchers took an active part in the role play rather than remain observers. The planned two-week experiment was terminated after six days when a visiting researcher voiced serious criticisms of the methods and the conditions of the "prison."
The SPE has been the subject of a number of books and articles, and a couple of films, including a 2001 German movie, Das Experiment. Now comes The Experiment, with Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker as faux prisoner and guard. Despite the presence of two Oscar winners, this 2010 film is going straight to home video. Is this a failed Experiment, or is director Paul Scheuring's film just too much for the big screen?
Travis (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) is a gentle, free-spirit type who loses his job just prior to meeting the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately, said dream girl is heading to an Ashram in India, and Travis doesn't have the money to go with her. Providence comes by way of an ad in the newspaper calling for men to sign up as subjects of an experiment. The money is certainly good: $1,000 a day for 14 days, so in two weeks time, Travis will not only have his travel cash, but enough left over to start a new life with his new honey.
The Experiment for which Travis so eagerly signs on is a simulation of life in prison. It's being conducted by a researcher (Fisher Stevens, The Burning) who assures Travis and the other men that they'll be in a safe environment -- but they will be temporarily losing their civil rights.
When the experiment begins, the participants are apparently randomly chosen to be either guards or prisoners. The guards are given a set of rules that they must obey (no physical violence) and enforce (prisoners must eat all their food, only speak when spoken to, and so forth). Right out of the gate, some of the guards seem to be taking their roles a bit too seriously, but since it's a controlled environment with everything being monitored, no one seems to mind too much.
But by the end of the first day, tensions have already started to rise, and some of the participants -- both prisoners and guards -- have started to change. The most disturbing: Mild-mannered Michael Barris (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland), a "guard," who begins asserting himself in unexpected and dangerous ways.
The biggest problem with The Experiment is we just don't get to know very much about the actual experiment. Sure, we see the men get sent off to pretend jail and separated into groups of powerful and powerless. Anyone who's ever caught an episode of Oz or Prison Break can tell you what's going to happen next. But the context only plays around the edges. The men reference the experiment -- they have to stay if they're going to get paid -- and the rules, and there are cameras everywhere, but this movie is really concerned about guys role playing a prison fantasy -- which is exactly what prison movies are. What should set this apart is the whole business of this being a behavior experiment, but we're given no insight into the research or methods. What's the point of this experiment? How are the goings-on being viewed by the people in charge? Why are they allowing things to get so ridiculously out of control? And why in the world is there a "secret room" with no cameras on the premises?
The real-life SPE was a bizarre, badly handled experiment that was more fascinating for its flaws than its conclusions. Chief among those flaws was the inability of the researchers to remain objective and separate the "pretend" element of their prison set up with an actual prison. (For an interesting look at the SPE by the researcher who had conducted the experiment, check out the link in the sidebar.)
In addition to the premise, The Experiment takes certain events directly from the SPE. For the most part, though, everything here is jazzed up action-flick style, with movie-staple relatable heroes and hissable villains, exaggerated situations, and the requisite ominous music cues. Apparently, U.S. audiences aren't ready for a straightforward docudrama on a behavioral science experiment gone bad, but who doesn't love a loud, ugly popcorn movie?
Instead of getting any kind of thoughtful, insightful study on human nature, we get a standard-issue prison movie with fewer shankings and more pretensions. Hands are tipped before the cards are even dealt, so there's no real suspense about how things are going to play out. We know that pacifist Travis -- who, before the whole prison thing, avoids beating up some guy who attacked his girlfriend at an anti-war march(!), prompting the lady to note that his "knuckles are pristine" -- will be driven to use physical violence against the nutty guards; though I'm not going to spoil it here, it's a pretty safe bet which nutty guard will be the one who causes Travis to bruise those pristine knuckles.
All the characters are set up simplistically, so we can see their arcs after just a few seconds of screen time. Not only does this give the whole thing a rushed, TV-movie feel, but from a behavioral science standpoint, it's counter-intuitive. For instance, Chase (Cam Gigandet, Twilight), one of the guys selected as a guard, is so obviously an aggressive alpha male that it's unlikely he would have gotten through the interview process, let alone have been chosen for an authority position.
Performance-wise, both Brody and Whitaker offer ham-fisted turns lacking any kind of subtlety or nuance. Brody goes the Kevin Spacey self-important route, making Travis a hushed-tone talking, wise and patient humanoid who endures a ridiculous amount of degradation in this "controlled" environment before, naturally, snapping. If Mel Gibson's looking to do The Passion of the Christ, Part Duo, I think we've found his Jesus.
Whitaker's performance works best as a "Guess who I am" party game. He starts out doing Lenny from Of Mice and Men, morphs into Eddie Albert in The Longest Yard, and ends up as the crazy nurse from Don't Look in the Basement. It's a hideously obvious bit of acting and, unfortunately, appropriate for this hideously obvious film.
Sony's just dropping this Blu-ray without a whole lot of fanfare or care. The 1080p image doesn't look much different than I would imagine the standard DVD looks. It's clean, it's clear, and it's wholly unexceptional; ditto the audio. Supplement-wise, it's a big, fat goose egg, though the disc is BD-Live enabled.
A potentially interesting story goes the way of a thousand other direct-to-home-video action movies. Bad choices from everyone involved and a tossed-out-there Blu-ray bring this up short.
Guilty. And no "fake" sentencing for you guys!
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Stanford Prison Experiment