Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 10, 2010)
With two Oscar-winning actors in front of the camera and the producer of a successful TV series in the director’s chair, why did 2010’s The Experiment slip under the radar? Good question. No, neither Forest Whitaker nor Adrien Brody have become box office draws, but you’d still think a flick in which they star would at least elicit a theatrical run. Add to the Prison Break creator Paul T. Scheuring as director and the movie’s direct-to-video status becomes more perplexing.
And perversely makes Experiment more intriguing. When something with so many semi-high profile participants gets dumped onto video in this way, it leads to the assumption the movie must stink. The prospect that it’ll actually live up to its pedigree and offer a good experience is enough to entice me to screen it.
A remake of a 2001 German flick, Experiment introduces us to Travis Hunt (Brody), a part-time nursing home orderly who finds himself unemployed due to cutbacks. Without much on his plate – and with a jones to travel anyway – Travis decides to travel to India to be with a babe (Maggie Grace) he met at a peace rally.
But first he needs to money to get him there. He finds a behavioral experiment that will pay $1000 per day over a two-week period. With the promise of a $14,000 check for so little work, he signs up.
Travis and the others soon learn the nature of the experiment. They will be placed in a prison setting and split into “inmates” and “guards”. The lead scientist (Fisher Stevens) lays down some rules that must be followed; if violated, the experiment ends immediately and all involved lose their paydays.
As the experiment starts, most involved view it as a lark, but matters soon turn darker. In particular, a few of the guards take their roles very seriously, and Michael Barris (Whitaker) become their leader. This sets him against Travis, a pacifist who ends up as the de facto head of the prisoner.
As most psych students know, “The Milgram Experiment” explored the degree to which humans will follow orders. Intended in part to examine how so many people could do so many horrible things in Nazi Germany, the experiment showed that most folks will do what they’re told even under extreme circumstances. Though the participants believed they brought pain and perhaps even death to another “volunteer” – actually a confederate of the scientists – these people continued to obey commands.
I mention this because I suspect that if you question the believability of The Experiment with its creators, they would cite Milgram’s work as evidence of its plausibility. I don’t doubt that variations on the movie’s tale could be accurate, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so I don’t really question the film’s main thesis.
However, I do take issue with the contrived and illogical manner in which the flick explores its subjects. Too much of it makes little sense. Even though the guards understand that transgressions on their part will terminate the experiment – and zap their paychecks – they do it anyway. Granted, the movie does empower them when they get away with some incidents, but the abandon with which they risk the money makes no sense.
The work of the scientists also totally stretches credulity. All sorts of havoc occurs, and yet they do nothing to interfere. Where exactly do they plan to publish their findings? The session becomes so absurdly unethical so quickly that the results would be useless.
And why would they let all hell break loose when they must know they’ll be liable? Participants are severely injured and even killed, but the scientists do nothing. At its end, the movie does indicate that they’ll suffer repercussions, but that doesn’t explain why they’d put themselves out on that limb in the first place. All these issues mean that even if one swallows the concept that the “guards” would treat the “prisoners” so horribly, the movie still lacks a basic believability and logic.
Drop those concerns and the film doesn’t work much better, largely because it follows such stock characters. Travis is little more than a faux Jesus, while Barris suffers from feeble psychological background. We learn little about the various parts in terms of exposition, but we do see that Barris cares for his sick – and cruel and demeaning – mother.
That sets up the modest, shy Barris with Little Man Syndrome. Oh, he’s a big enough guy in terms of size, but we see he’s been made to feel small his whole life. When he gets a taste of power, he really likes it; in a tacky moment, we notice that Barris sports a post-violence erection. Whatever grasp on reality he held goes out the window as he embraces his newfound virility.
Yeep. Experiment boasts a whole array of thin characters like this who add no texture to the piece. I suspect we’re supposed to view Barris as an everyman sort to demonstrate how quickly any of us could go coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs, but that doesn’t work. Since we know that Barris suffered from abuse at the hands of his nasty momma and probably boasts a broad array of psychological issues, his transformation fails to feel universal. Barris rapidly goes from Unassuming Nice Guy With a Bad Wig to Grade A Nutbag, and it doesn’t make sense.
In reality, The Experiment exists as little more than a ham-fisted attempt at social commentary. Are many – most? all? – people capable of atrocities when placed in certain situations? Sure. Does this movie deliver any kind of thoughtful message? Nope. It exists as a sadistic fantasy wrapped in delusions of relevance.