The Experiment (Paul T. Scheuring, 2010)
As is almost always the case, there is a lot of hooting and hollering on the internet about how The Experiment is yet another crappy American remake of a movie that is much, much better. And in many ways, I tacitly agree with it; Olivier Hirschbiegel’s 2001 film Das Experiment got four stars from me and is pretty high up in my Top 1000, while this remake gets two and a half stars. But I feel I kind of need to defend this movie from some of the aggressors, because the arguments I’m seeing…don’t make a lot of sense when you compare the two films. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Plot: The Experiment‘s title makes a good deal more sense to students of recent history when you put the words “Stanford prison” in between them. Twenty-six men are chosen from a pool of applicants. They are divided into guards (nine) and prisoners (seventeen) and put into a small, self-contained world meant to resemble a prison…and then the watchers sit back and see how long it takes these people, who were for all intents and purposes equals on the outside, to fall into their roles, with all that conveys. The two groups shake out pretty quickly into their natural orders, with pacifist Travis (Oxygen‘s Adrian Brody) becoming the de facto leader of the prisoners, and meek office worker Barris (Panic Room‘s Forest Whitaker) finding himself in the odd position of being the leader of the guards. You know where this is going, but there are other interesting/dramatic/amusing side stories being played out as well.
CAUTION: The next paragraph contains spoilers for Hirschbiegel’s movie. Be warned.
The main argument I keep hearing about how much better the 2001 film is in comparison to this one is that it’s closer to what really happened. I’m sorry, folks, but that’s sheer, unadulterated bullshit. Do you really think that daring escape in the climax of the 2001 movie happened that way? (Christina Maslach, upon whom Franka Potente’s character was based, did object to the experiment, and it was her intervention that got the experiment shut down, but she did not help bust the prisoners out.) “Based on a true story” means exactly that, and the folks who are writing the screenplays are going to change details for dramatic tension. And, given that a decade elapsed between the two films and that they were made in two different cultures, the details the scriptwriters change are going to be different. The particular hidden side we end up seeing to Chase (Easy A‘s Cam Gigandet) was added because that’s a part of the American public consciousness/primal fear; the screenwriters in Germany might not have even had it cross their minds, because it’s not the huge bugaboo in Europe that it is an America. If you’re going to complain about a movie for working strains of tension inherent to its culture, that’s not a problem with the movie.
That said, where the movie went was kind of predictable, and in ways I wish it hadn’t been. It makes sense in the scope of the film for Scheuring’s screenplay to have most of the prisoners be shallow stereotypes, but that doesn’t make them any more satisfying (and it also tips his hand as to one character who becomes an unwitting catalyst to the events in the final quarter of the film; it’s an ambitious play, but because of the way Scheuring structured his characters, it doesn’t have the impact it could have). And, well, the climax, which has taken so much heat…it’s obviously drawing from Hirschbiegel rather than actual events, but where Hirschbiegel threw in a curve ball or two (the major one is alluded to above), Scheuring went with the most logical probable outcome, after throwing in one character revelation that made not one damn bit of sense (nor of difference, when it came right down to it), and robbed much of what should have been a fist-pumping satisfactory climax of its rah-rah-rah-ness. (That said, he does set up the denouement, which is quite the depressing anticlimax, and in many ways it’s the most effective part of the movie.)
I wanted this to be a better movie than it is. But with that said, I rather liked it; any chance Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker get to flex their onscreen muscles is probably going to be worth at least a watch, and neither disappoints here. Worth checking out if you stumble upon it at Netflix. ** ½