Judge Clark Douglas wrote this review as part of a behavioral experiment to test human tolerance for crappy films.
Our review of The Experiment (Blu-Ray), published August 30th, 2010, is also available.
"You still think we're higher on the evolutionary chain than monkeys?"
Travis (Adrien Brody, The Darjeeling Limited) has just been laid off from his job. It's not because of poor performance; Travis is a good guy who cares for the elderly people he works with and spends his free time as a political activist. While marching to protest the war in Iraq, he meets Bay (Maggie Grace, Lost), a like-minded young woman intent on traveling to India in the hopes of finding inner peace. Travis would love nothing more than to join her, but he doesn't have the money. Fortunately, Travis discovers an ad in a newspaper asking for volunteers to participate in a two-week behavioral experiment.
Here's the deal: 24 male volunteers will pretend to be inmates and guards inside a secure penitentiary. The prisoners will attempt to behave, the guards will attempt to maintain order, and the Powers That Be will watch the proceedings via video cameras. If the rules aren't followed, if any violence occurs, or if the guards are unable to maintain order, the experiment will be shut down and no one will receive their pay. Things start out well enough, but the situation quickly becomes tense as the relationship between the guards and the prisoners starts to turn hostile.
The Experiment opens with footage of various creatures engaging a battle: one hippopotamus fights another, two dogs do the same, then giraffes, then crocodiles, etc. Suddenly, these clips are intercut with footage of police beatings, military conflicts, and so on. The idea is hard to miss: men are basically savage animals. Unfortunately, the social commentary provided by The Experiment never gets much deeper than that, leaving us with an overheated and unconvincing thriller that isn't half as effective as it ought to be.
As Appellate Judge Tom Becker noted, the film is largely based on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, though to most viewers it will play more like a fictionalized variation on numerous reality shows. A whole bunch of people are placed in a foreign environment monitored by lots of cameras and are forced to endure a series of challenges in order to receive a nice wad of cash. Seems awfully familiar, doesn't it? Naturally most adopt at least some measure of artifice when they're aware cameras are rolling, but the people populating the world of The Experiment seem even less convincing than many of the hokey "performances" offered on such programs as Survivor. Unfortunately, this seems to be due to the screenplay's weakness rather than an intentional attempt to comment on man's relationship to the camera.
For instance, consider the character played by Ethan Cohn (Alice in Wonderland). He's a nerdy sort of fellow (wearing glasses, of course) who spends his days drawing pictures of a superhero named "Flying Man." When Brody asks Cohn what his profession is, Cohn replies, "I'm a novelist. Well, a graphic novelist." "You draw comic books?" Brody says. "Graphic novels," Cohn replies indignantly. Now, almost every comic book writer/graphic novelist I've ever read an interview with has absolutely no disdain for the word "comic," and many even find the "graphic novel" label a pretentious necessity that enables those who don't like "comics" to take their medium seriously. Someone actually immersed in that world wouldn't feel that way, but that's precisely the sort of characterization we're given. Outside-looking-in characterization and psychology like that is employed across the board, giving us characters that never feel remotely real.
The performances from the leads certainly don't help things much. Brody is a gifted actor with a tendency to make rather bad choices at times, and The Experiment is one of his least-inspired turns in a while. He simply plays the character as grimly heroic; a good-natured pacifist slowly driven to violence by the conditions he is placed in. Alas, he's just sort of boring. Even so, Brody fares better than Forest Whitaker, whose over-the-top performance is spectacularly misguided. Whitaker does his "I'm a tender soul constantly on the verge of tears" bit early on before morphing into full-blown nutso mode somewhere around the halfway point. Both leads turn in bad performances, but Whitaker's is unforgettably bad.
Worst of all, after the experiment has been set up by the mysterious Archaleta (Fisher Stevens of Lost playing the Jeff Probst role) we don't really learn anything more about the people running the experiment or what it was supposed to accomplish. In the end, it's merely a historically inspired gimmick designed to set up a C-grade thriller that inevitably leads its characters into a banal frenzy of rage, verbal abuse, beatings, rape, and murder. How ironic that a film promising an examination of how people behave in prison proves less compelling than the average standard-issue prison movie.
The DVD transfer is actually quite strong, benefiting from rather deep blacks and strong detail. The film is hardly remarkable on a visual level, but the typically blue/gray prison movie palette comes across quite nicely. Audio is respectable as well, with clean dialogue and well-distributed sound design. However, I will say I found Graeme Revell's score to be a bit obnoxious in its insistence that the situation is dire regardless of whether or not that's actually the case. There are no extras included on the disc.
It's time to take The Experiment into the room without cameras and
teach it a little lesson.
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