Who are you? How much of your
identity is based on your role in society... and its invisible rules of
behavior? And what do you think would happen if those rules were taken away...
or if you had the power to make and enforce your own rules?
These aren't questions that
Fahd (Moritz Bleibtreu) expects to confront when he signs up as a paid
volunteer for a psychological experiment simulating a prison environment. Along
with a dozen other volunteers designated as "prisoners" and a smaller
group as "guards," he expects the next 14 days of
"incarceration" to be an interesting experience, nothing more,
playing out a game under the watchful eyes of the researchers' 24-hour
surveillance cameras. But very soon, all the participants learn that they're in
for more than they realized, as the combination of stress and the imbalance of
power between prisoners and guards may be more than any of them can handle.
I've seen the label
"psychological thriller" tossed around to label a lot of movies; The
Experiment (original title: Das Experiment) is one where it fits
perfectly. The drama is simple, in that the power struggles and conflicts
between individuals are stripped down to their essences here, in the stark
environment of the simulated prison. The psychological dimension of the drama
is in the characters attempting to deal with the unexpectedly intense
situation, and in the way that the changing situation catches all the
characters up in its clutches, changing them, drawing them in, even against
The Experiment is a
truly frightening movie. It's not in the "cheap thrills" department,
with scares provided by a monster-figure or even a "monstrous" human
killer whom we can comfortably label as "deviant." No, The
Experiment deliberately peels back the layers of civilized restraint,
revealing that quite near the surface lies behavior that is simply, shockingly
evil... and equally human. Under pressure, the old instincts of dominance and
submission, of aggression and violence, come into play; what's scary about The
Experiment is the ease with which these come to the surface, even in the
modern day, even in a "controlled" situation.
But perhaps what's even more
frightening is indeed that balance of so-called control; as the experiment
proceeds, the question of who is in control becomes more and more unclear... at
the same time that it becomes more and more important. We tend to think of
"peer pressure" as something that only affects children and
teenagers, before they learn to have confidence in their own judgment, but in
truth, every person in a society is subject to pressure to conform, and with
adults, it may be even more dangerous because it's less recognized. The
Experiment forces us to confront the disturbing effects of being part of a
group, to see how one or two individuals can shift the balance of power, and to
recognize how a person can be drawn into committing acts that he would never
have even considered, let alone done, on his own.
I've mostly been discussing the
overall theme of the film, and its subject; I don't want to end the review
without praising the way in which these elements are executed. The
Experiment is a visually and aurally creative film, with cinematography and
sound design that depict the intense drama of the story in an imaginative, artistic
manner. Dramatic lighting, contrast between light and dark, varying camera
angles, and the use of color are all pieces of the puzzle that add up to a
dark, richly textured, and satisfying film.
In closing, I'd also like to
note that the DVD of The Experiment wins my Cheesy Cover Art of the
Month Award. The cover image is something that never occurs in the film, and it
has a vaguely science-fictional look to it that's completely unwarranted: this
is not, I repeat not, science fiction. It's a completely (and frighteningly)
realistic psychological thriller.
The Experiment is
presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically
enhanced. Columbia/Tristar has done a very nice job with this release, with
only a few minor flaws detracting from an excellent visual experience. Some
edge enhancement is noticeable, but only a few scenes. The only flaw that's
apparent throughout the movie is a moderate number of small- to medium-sized
print flaws. Apart from that, the transfer is excellent, especially since it's
a visually challenging film.
Colors and contrast are handled
well throughout the film. That's not to say that they always look
"natural," because the film plays with extremes of light and shadow,
along with variations in color in its visual imagery to underscore the events
happening on-screen. What matters is that it's done intentionally to create a
specific (and highly effective) tone for the film. Black levels are nicely deep
and dark, and while many scenes are very dark, the detail that we're supposed
to see is always evident. Noise is virtually absent as well.
English subtitles are provided,
and I was pleased to note that they are optional. The subtitles are in an
easy-to-read yellow, and appeared to be well-written and grammatically correct
throughout the film.
The Experiment's German
Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is superb. Not only does it handle the ordinary duties of
a soundtrack well, like presenting clear, natural-sounding dialogue, correctly
balanced volume among the dialogue, music, and effects tracks, and a clean
background, the soundtrack here goes a step further to provide an intense audio
experience for the film. The Experiment makes the best use of the full
surround channels that I've heard in quite a while; the rear channels in
particular are put through a workout, creating the convincing impression that
we, like the characters, are within the prison.
The sound here doesn't just
play what's happening on the screen; skilful use of music and effects makes it
so that the soundtrack creates a visceral reaction in the viewer, making what's
happening seem intensely real. As just one example, at one point in the film a
"black box" is brought into the simulated prison; I won't tell you
what it is, other than to say that Fahd is afraid of it. Every time he looks at
the box, the scene goes silent... except for a deep, almost inaudible bass hum
from the subwoofer, which hits in the pit of the stomach with a feeling very
much like anxiety. Without calling attention to itself at all, the soundtrack
effectively works with the rest of the film to evoke an emotional reaction in
the viewer. Trust me... it's intense.
There's nothing major here,
just three trailers for other films, including Run Lola Run.
The Experiment could be
described as the intersection between Cube and Lord of the Flies:
from Cube, the "rats in a cage" aspect of human behavior in a
tightly limited (and threatening) environment, and from Lord of the Flies,
the frightening consequences of a breakdown of "civilized" society.
If either of those two movies (or book) intrigued you, then run, don't walk, to
buy The Experiment. Polished in its execution and chilling in its
implications, this is a film that I'll highly recommend in general, especially
as its DVD transfer is outstanding.