In 1971 US psychologist Philip Zimbardo ran a sociological study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. The idea of The Experiment was to see how a diverse group of people would respond to being placed into the positions of prisoner and guard in a prison. The experiment was stopped after only six days after the guards began inflicting psychological torture on the prisoners. The study lead to a 2001 German film Das Experiment being released, the success of which lead to an English language remake in 2010 called The Experiment.
The Experiment follows Buddhist, former nursing home employee Travis (Adrien Brody) and religious man Michael Barris (Forest Whitaker) as they sign up to take part in a controversial social study. Pitching the men on opposite sides of the prisoner/guard setup and placing them in a mock prison with a list of rules and the promise of a big financial payout, the experiment takes a turn for the worse when people start adopting the roles they have been given.
US remakes of foreign language films are rarely considered equal to the originals. There seems to be something lost in translation between the two, however The Experiment had the opportunity to side-step this issue with the subject matter itself being so fascinating and based in reality. Certainly the opening of The Experiment is engaging, filled with intrigue and some interesting hypothetical investigations of the human condition and what we think of our character and what is truthful in our character.
Adrien Brody has always had a certain charisma onscreen, especially when he is being subjected to physical and mental torture, so his turn as Travis couldn’t be more inspired. While Whitaker’s slow transformation from God-fearing man to authoritarian is nicely realised and he is physically imposing enough to create dramatic tension. It is however the pacing which lets The Experiment down. Having worked hard to setup the premise in the first act and slowly build tension in the second act, the action in the final act loses its way completely.
Gone is any nuance or subtlety and we are instead treated to heavy-handed editing as well as some out of place musical accompaniment. In one scene the guards act barbarically, in slow motion to some tribal drum beats, only for Barris to draw attention to the fact that the music is actually playing over the loud speakers. This obvious flaw breaks engagement and sits as a jarring reminder to the audience that they are watching people pretending to be other people pretending to be guards. It’s an odd moment and one that encapsulates the problems with the disjointed and messy finale.
After so much promise in subject matter, casting and a truly interesting opening, The Experiment, like the study itself descends into chaos. By the end it’s difficult to really engage with any of the characters and the action becomes formulaic and in some regards nonsensical and any of the potential of the film is lost scene by scene.