Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Experiment

The Experiment is an American remake of a German film with the same name made in 2001, which was based on a real experiment conducted in California in 1971. I thought Das Experiment was a powerful and well-made film and assumed an American remake would be inferior. It was. I guess others agreed, as The Experiment didn’t even make it to theatres.

Written and directed by Paul Scheuring, and starring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker, The Experiment tells the story of 24 men who volunteer (i.e. for the promise of $14,000 if they see it through) to be divided up into guards and inmates at a penitentiary for two weeks. The idea is to see what happens when some people (one-third) are given power while the majority are deprived of their civil rights. They are told that the experiment will end if anyone gets hurt - no violence is allowed. It does not, however, take long for all hell to break loose.

We are never given any information on the people conducting the experiment or why they let it get out of control and this is either a huge flaw in the film or a very deliberate omission. If the latter, more thought should have been given to the audience frustration caused by the lack of explanation for countless details in the film.

In the “making-of”, Brody says The Experiment shows how violence does not resolve conflicts, it only creates more violence. The film’s producer talks about how the the film helps people to think about themselves and the people around them in a more conscious way. Scheuring admits he’s not trying to change the world, but he hopes people will think about how the dynamics of power in a prison setting is a microcosm of the world (in any group of people, and in the world itself, there are those who will assume power and those who will be deprived of it) and that it will be seen as a humanizing film.

I agree that this is a very thought-provoking film. Indeed, that is why the German original got four stars from me. And I could be persuaded that the points made above could be drawn from The Experiment. But the central message of this film, to me, is that, when pushed hard enough, everyone will break in a matter of days, even committed pacifists. It's just human nature. I am not convinced that is true and this film did not do a credible job of convincing me. Whatever the German original was trying to do, it at least seemed more credible.

It doesn’t help that neither the characters nor the performances are very inspired. The simplistic screenplay is at least partly to blame for this. The Experiment feels at times like a mediocre made-for-network-TV film. Even worse, the average acting sometimes makes the film feel like a reality show. As a result, the psychological insights, which should be the film’s strong suit, are hard to find.

The Experiment succeeds only insofar as it creates an interesting premise that provides much food for discussion. As an inspired filming of the premise, it is a major disappointment and I recommend sticking to the German version. **+ My mug is facing the wrong way.

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