It’s not often that I get to feel like a real pretentious film-watcher but thanks to M. Shales’ “Challenge and Change in Society” class in Grade 11, I was exposed to a 2001 German film called Das Experiment. It’s a movie that has stuck with me for years, and even though I don’t remember enough of it to be able to speak eloquently about it over half a decade later, I remember it, in the abstract, vividly. So, imagine my surprise when I was poking around through a Blockbuster sale bin and saw this movie that looked a LOT like Das Experiment. After reading the back, I realized that it WAS Das Experiment but in English… and with Forest Whitaker… AND Adrien Brody. I literally could not think of a movie that I wanted to see more.
Adding to my excitement for writing about this movie is the fact that almost no one has. Few enough critics (3) have covered Direct-to-DVD movie The Experiment that Rotten Tomatoes hasn’t even bothered to come to a consensus. Now don’t worry, this isn’t going to be like last time, when we spent the whole discussion of The Thing talking about the similarities and differences between the two movies. As I said, I remember diddly about the German original and most of the stuff I do remember comes from the film’s Wikipedia page.
So what did I think about 2010’s The Experiment? My initial response was forgiving, thinking that the film’s positives outweighed its tedious difficulties but, a few days later, those flaws are sinking in a bit deeper and I’m starting to lose touch with any brilliance that may have been immediately apparent.
What I do remember is being ever-so-impressed with Adrien Brody’s character, whose name (and inmate number) I cannot remember. This character, especially how Brody played him, was simultaneously the everyman and the ideal man. He’s a seemingly easy-going guy with both a firm sense of right and wrong and a willingness to acknowledge that despite spending a lifetime establishing a character and morality, he may just be entirely wrong about the whole thing. He’s got enough of sense of the pulse of the universe to understand that nothing matters but has enough optimism to do the right thing anyway. When you watch the film, he may feel like he’s you but also the person you’re really trying to be. Throw in a couple of cool tattoos and you’ve got yourself a bonafide filmic goldmine.
Ignoring Brody for a second (as if anyone could), the film even salvaged Maggie Grace for me. Known to me until just recently as the mind-shatteringly annoying Shannon from Lost, Maggie Grace represents a fantasy girl for anyone who identifies with Brody’s character the way that I did. With her vague bohemian fashion and blonde dreadlocks, Grace doesn’t have much chance to do much with a stock character but she takes to the role with a credibility that puts her into an entirely different category than bitchy-bitch Shannon.
Talking about the acting, though, there are two more questionably adept characters in the film, both of whose failures stem (most likely) more from bad writing than bad acting. Then again, maybe there’s a reason that Cam Gigandet hasn’t really hit it huge. First up, let’s talk about Whitaker’s character, Barris. To talk about him, I need to explain just a wee bit of plot. The gist of the film is that it takes place at a prison during a sociological and psychological experiment, based on Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiments, during which several men were brought together and divided up into prisoners and guards. Barris is one of the men chosen for the team of guards and the only history we have for him is that he lives at home, with his mother, and he is pretty resentful about it. Up until guard duty, he is a shy, muttering man living under the oppressive regime of a needy, overbearing mother. Imagine Gilbert Grape at 40. The amazing thing about Barris is how little time it takes for him to go off the deep end. After just a taste of power, Barris understands why his mother kept him on such a short leash and he doles out punishment left and right, taking the experiment which gave him that power more seriously than anyone else. By the end, the scope of his universe has shrunk to a point where the only thing that is real to him is the conditions in which the experiment takes place. These are the circumstances which lent him power so why would he bother worrying about anything outside of it? Barris’ most powerful moment, however, comes after the experiment has been called off, and he is left, back on equal ground with all of the people he has oppressed, tortured, and brutalized. Suddenly, and without warning, his power is gone and he is immediately faced with the psychological impact of his actions, without the power to justify it. There is no question that Whitaker pulls off that last scene with awesome credibility.
I mentioned in the last paragraph that the writing for this character seems pretty weak. ‘There’s no way,’ you think, ‘that this guy could go off the deep end so quickly.’ That’s why the movie is so scary. I’m backsliding a bit here but it seems that the most ludicrous portions and characters are the ones that are the most true to the real horror of the Stanford experiment. After just six days, Zimbardo ended up pulling the plug because of how far up batshit-crazy-creek the whole thing went. While things never escalated to the levels implied by both movies, even Zimbardo got caught up in the power trip that came with his dual role as experimenter and prison warden. So yes, Barris’ character does feel fake, and his motivations do seem like a really easy scapegoat for his eventual de-evolution (especially when Brody’s character keeps shouting at him about how he needs professional help) but I guess that’s kind of the point. Zimbardo’s experiment tried to weed out the crazies but that didn’t stop crazy from getting in.
A similar thing happens with Cam Gigandet’s character. The first thing we learn about him is that his philosophy in life is to “Smoke pot, eat twat, and smile a lot.” Why someone who gives these kinds of goofy, scripted answers was admitted into a dangerous psychological experiment is never answered but almost immediately, when deprived of both pot and twat, Gigandet turns into a rapist. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I went for five days without having sex or smoking dope, I would probably be okay, even if all I had for company was a few dudes and the prisoners that we were responsible for. Whether Gigandet’s character is the kind of sex addict that Tom Sizemore shudders to think of, or whether he “smiles a lot” to cover up some deeply closeted, overly aggressive homosexual tendencies, his escalation to absurd violence is too brutal to believe. It’s almost as if the filmmakers said “Well, there’s a rape scene in the German one… but we don’t have any women… so let’s have this guy try to nail one of the prisoners!” It’s great to try and convey similar themes but when this guy could probably avoid the whole issue by rubbing one out in the bathroom, it starts to feel gratuitous.
The real villains, of course, aren’t the prisoners, or even the guards, it is the scientists responsible for the experiment in the first place. Whether we’re talking about the movie or the experiment itself, it all, in retrospect, seems really shittily cobbled together. It feels more like a really controversial reality show than a social experiment. At least on Survivor, no one’s getting raped. Any experiment that involves giving a small group of people arbitrary power over a large group, with nothing other than nightsticks (and instructions not to use said nightsticks) is grossly irresponsible science. We’re told that the experiment will be called off upon any instance of violence. Time after time, the experiment continues until finally, someone pulls the plug, everyone stumbles out into the sunlight, and everyone leaves together on a bus. Since the only communication with the scientists happens by way of cameras (how the experiment is being viewed) and a red light (to call off the experiment), we have no reason to believe that there was even anyone on site in case of escalation. Apparently these are scientists who are surprised that arming a minority group, giving explicit instruction to maintain order and status quo, resort to violence to make it happen.
More than anything, The Experiment makes a statement about the repercussions of arbitrary power distribution. It makes all kinds of statements. Some people may watch it and blame the prisoners (why couldn’t that little hippy bastard just mind his business), some may blame the guards (c’mon man, don’t let the uniform define you, man), and some may blame the scientists (insert pithy pseudo-quote here) but there’s little to no question that as soon as you’ve got it, someone’s going to want it, and in all the fallout, not everyone’s getting out of this with their identity intact.