"The Experiment" is a film of immense movie stupidity. It's an illogical suspense picture with ties to sociological history, but the filmmakers don't even bother to bring some actual sense to the screenplay. Tiresome and poorly acted, the picture insists it's a meaningful creation able to reflect the world's woes, summoning brutality to make a point about callous human nature. Unfortunately, the feature misses a lasting significance by a country mile, stumbling around while attempting to pat itself on the back.
A pacifist with a heart of gold, Travis (Adrien Brody) has just met Bay (Maggie Grace), the love of his life, at the very moment she's off to visit India for a spiritual awakening. Needing quick cash to fund a trip, Travis signs up for a special experiment that pays handsomely for 14 days of study, joining a group that includes timid Barris (Forest Whitaker), redneck brawler Chase (Cam Gigandet), and graphic novelist Benjy (Ethan Cohn). Sent inside an empty prison to simulate life behind bars, the group is divided between inmates and guards, handed a set of rules to follow as a series of cameras monitor their every move. After a day spent settling in, it becomes clear that Barris takes his law enforcement position seriously, turning the prison into a nightmare of violence and humiliation to maintain his upper hand.
"The Experiment" is ultimately a remake, updating the 2001 German film, "Das Experiment," while maintaining ties to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, which constructed the same civilian vs. civilian psychological standoff in 1971. Obviously, it's a premise ripe for serious moral and ethical reflection, handing the fragile framework of human interaction over to those unprepared for such responsibility, with many taking the opportunity to indulge their own sadistic tendencies as the cameras watched in silence.
For the 2010 reworking, "The Experiment" has been boiled down to a crummy acting exercise, with writer/director Paul Scheuring (creator of "Prison Break") cleaving away story to allow the cast ample room to broadly articulate madness, treating the prison floor as professional wrestling, populated with heroes, villains, wimps, and traitors. These are men to cheer and jeer, not accept as complex individuals. While their primary motivation is money, little else is revealed about the participants outside of Crayola-stained backstory moments, infusing the film with cartoonish insight, not a full-bodied understanding of impulses. Instead of a chilling exploration of abuse, we're offered caricatures, and nonsensical ones to boot -- Half-Mexican actor Clifton Collins, Jr. pops up here as a heavily tattooed white supremacist, making his gang the most accommodating Nazis I've ever heard of.
As mentioned earlier, logic is not a friend to "The Experiment," which spirals into a frustratingly bland routine of guards abusing inmates. In the original experiment, the prisoners accepted the mistreatment as a form of psychological submission, but this feature isn't the original experiment. This is a motion picture with little time for character nuance, making the transgressions impossible to accept, especially when the film establishes early on that violence from the guards will have consequences. Instead of immediate questioning, the prisoners take the abuse without any reason given as to why they would allow such a clear contractual violation. It takes time for the meek to make a fist, with Schuering pushing the film further off course by basing Barris and Chase's rage in sexuality, thus robbing the brutal twosome of a richly complex depiction of corruption.
While contained almost entirely to a single setting, the AVC encoded image (2.40:1 aspect ratio) presentation is excellent, with a crisp, cool read on the brutal mood of the picture. Shadow detail is marvelous, gracefully supporting the action through darker circumstances, while colors are stable and sharply separated, with flashes of bolder hues making a sharp impact during the run of the film, with special attention to reds and darker blues. Facial detail is superb, allowing for a full inspection of reactions and medical complications.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix retains a considerable amount of character, with the production using a wide range of aural tricks to keep the listener involved with the action. Directionals are extensive, best served with echoy bursts of prison floor violence. Scoring cues are spare, but also dimensional, blended acceptably with the claustrophobic incidents. Dialogue is always within reach, pushed up front for maximum clarity, with comfortable separation.
English and English SDH subtitles are offered.
Though handed defective characterizations, the performances head in the wrong direction, going broad with madness, with Whitaker chewing the scenery as the boner-popping alpha guard. It's a dreadful bit of acting, with the film seeking to match his flail in the final act, where the picture goes from taunts and thwacks to a full-scale riot, erasing whatever social discussion there was left to enjoy. Scheuring does summon the energy to end the picture with a "The More You Know" closer, but it's a laughable period at the end of a baffling sentence.
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