According to my half-ass Google-ing, the Stanford prison experiment was a psychological study conducted by professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. The experiment recruited a couple dozen undergraduates, half of whom were tasked to portray prisoners in a mock-prison set-up in the Stanford basement, while the other half acted as guards. The entire thing was filmed, and garnered much attention due to the stressful conditions in which the college kids found themselves, with the entire experiment breaking down in less than a week.
Basically, the experiment was supposed to show the conductors how humans would react in incredibly strenuous conditions, and it's telling that the societal boundaries and basic humanities broke down so quickly. And it's been cited and discussed and picked apart ever since, with particular interest coming after the Abu Ghraib torture incidents in Iraq came to light.
I'm telling you all of this because this is the basic plot of 'The Experiment,' Paul Scheuring's remake of the 2001 German film 'Das Experiment.' While the German film was based in part on a novel, there doesn't seem to be any kind of deeper investment in the material here besides, "well, here's that experiment from 25 years ago and it's been dramatized a bit."
In the film, Adrian Brody plays Travis, a listless loser about whom we don't really know anything, besides the fact that he has a crush on a girl named Bay ('Lost's' Maggie Grace) and has a whole bunch of wicked, production design-y tattoos. It's through his desperate eyes that we're introduced to the experiment, which offers $15,000 per participant, and is based on the Stanford experiment exactly.
Other blandly drawn characters who are snookered into this experiment include Forest Whitaker, as a sexually repressed mama's boy (think Norman Bates with a bad "daytime" wig); Cam Gigandet as a jocky prick; Clifton Collins Jr. as a white supremacist; and Ethan Cohn as a loveably doughy comic book writer. Fisher Stevens shows up at the beginning as a mildly malevolent higher-up, who dictates the orders and divides our actors into "prisoners" and "guards." Just seeing Stevens, a sterling actor who is almost always tragically underrated, gave me hope not only for the movie, but also that there would be a third psychological profile developed beyond the prisoners and the guards: the experimenters themselves.
Alas, this was not meant to be.
Besides a slightly menacing zoom of a video camera lens, the conductors of the experiment are wholly without personality. (After those opening scenes, Stevens disappears altogether.) As the societal norms break down, so does the movie, with previously dignified actors like Whitaker and Collins turning in over-the-top caricatures (just wait until you see the scene when Whitaker gets a boner after asserting his power as a guard - ick). Brody, who in recent years has been drawn to above-average genre trash (stuff like 'King Kong,' 'Splice,' and 'Predators') is clearly slumming it here, with Scheuring (creator of the ludicrous television series 'Prison Break'), indulging in well-worn clichés (prison rape, anyone?) and inventing all new ones (where, exactly, is the emo prison guard getting his constant supply of eye-liner and hair gel?)
While I never saw the original German film, this movie's astounding mediocrity, evidenced by the fact that even with its alluring star power it went straight to home video, has turned me off of the subject for good. 'The Experiment' never makes you feel like you're going through what these guys are going through, psychologically or emotionally, unlike, say, Richard Kelly's masterful 'The Box.' (That movie's tagline was "You are the experiment.") You don't come out of 'The Experiment' feeling anything, really. And the movie's dogged refusal to address or critique the recent prison abuse scandals makes it instantly irrelevant. Maybe 'The Experiment' was simply trying to prove whether or not anyone would even watch such a tepid, halfhearted bit of nonsense.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Experiment,' locked-up on a 50GB Blu-ray disc, doesn't automatically play. It is Region A locked and BD-Live ready, although there was nothing present at the time of this writing (not even a lousy Movie IQ trivia track). Also, it has some really horrendous cover art, the main emphasis of which seems to be drawing attention to Forest Whitaker's weathered old neck. Ew. Despite the movie's pedigreed cast and crew, there isn't one iota of bonus material on the disc. Not a thing.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.39:1) might be a fair representation of the movie's visual intent but, that said, it doesn't look like much.
The movie is mostly confined to the mock prison sets, lit harshly by overhead florescent bulbs which lend the entire image a sickly, pallid flatness punctuated only by moments of extreme violence (with blobs of bright red blood) and the smash-cuts to black, followed up a title card that gives us an indication of what day of the experiment we're on.
So, in other words: very dull indeed. On a rudimentary level, the image succeeds - skin tones look fairly realistic, what little detail there is looks good (I'm speaking almost exclusively to the vividness of Brody's fake tattoos), and black levels are consistent and appropriately dark.
There is never a layer of grain or dirt, which makes the image feel antiseptic and scrubbed clean (like the film never spooled through a projector in advance of an adoring audience which, it turns out, it never did), although mercifully no instances of DNR are apparent. It's hard to approximate the sensation of watching 'The Experiment' (and viewing its workmanlike appearance), but it is not a very good one.
Faring better is the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix, which gives you a good approximation of what it would be like in the phony prison setting (and I mean that in a good way).
The mix is fairly active, giving a nice sense of echo chamber atmosphere, presenting a space that teems with depth and dimensionality. Additionally, when violence does erupt (and erupt it does), the score takes on an added level of activity that uses the surround channels robustly.
Sound effects (like the squeaking of the prisoners' shoes or the smack of a glob of foot hitting a guard) are sharp and never overbearing, and dialogue is crisp, clear, and well prioritized. Sequences set in the prison after dark, when the prisoners are whispering to one another, are always easy to understand, with the dialogue remaining sharply focused the entire time.
The drone-y score by genre stalwart Graeme Revell also sounds nice and full on this mix, if not up to his usual standards of profound brilliance. The sound mix presents a nice package of depth and atmospherics, never resorting to cheap surround sound-y gimmicks to get the job done, but presenting a whole, full-bodied sonic package that's very much appreciated, even if I didn't give a shit about the actual movie.
There are also subtitles in English and English SDH. Woo.
'The Experiment' is a slog, although I fear in saying that I'm giving slogs a bad name. A boneheaded contraption in every sense of the world, this is Grade-Z genre slumming for everyone involved (particularly talented actors like Whitaker and Brody) that goes for bombast over nuance and rote theatrics over of-the-moment satire. With blah video, good audio, but not a single extra, there's nothing that should compel you to watch the movie, let alone pick up the undoubtedly more expensive Blu-ray. You shouldn't just skip 'The Experiment,' you should lock it up and throw away the key.