Directed by Paul T. Scheuring
Starring: Adrian Brody, Forest Whitaker, Cam Gigandet, Clifton Collins Jr., Maggie Grace
IMDb 6.5/10 Rotten Tomatoes NO DATA Metacritic NO DATA
This film is a remake of an earlier German version by the same name (Das Experiment) made in 2001. It tells the story of a very controversial “scientific” experiment that took place in real life in 1971 on the Stanford college campus, conducted by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. The experiment (and I use that term very loosely) was supposed to study the effects of implied power and the dynamic between inmates and guards. It was scheduled to last fourteen days. The entire experiment was shut down after just six days. But those were an incredible six days that made scientific history…and not in a good way.
Let’s talk about the actual experiment first. I said I use that term loosely because there are very strict parameters involved when conducting an experiment. The whole idea is to test theories, chart results and findings and see if other scientists or doctors or whoever can replicate your findings. If they can, the theory is determined to be sound. If they can’t, it’s back to the drawing board. There are basic things that true experiments must have in order to be considered sound and viable experiments such as, a control variable, an unbiased and separate person running the experiment and observing the results. You can’t have the scientist participate in the experiment, only organize it and collect data really. There are a number of other things that we all learned in fifth grade science class about what constitutes an experiment. Apparently, Professor Zimbardo must have been sick the week they taught science experiments in grade school…and high school…and college…and apparently when they covered that in graduate school too. How unfortunate for him.
What happened in 1971 was Zimbardo asked for campus volunteers to participate in a behavioral study/psychological study for the fee of $15 (about $90 in 2017). There were a certain number randomly selected to be guards and the rest were set to be inmates. The professor was the Warden. At his direction, the guards were informed of what was expected of them and the inmates were told that they were in fact inmates…and their makeshift campus prison went into action. The professor was able to watch everything they did on cameras placed throughout the area. The participants WERE aware they were being watched and this may have even bolstered their abusive behavior towards the inmates. The inmates were given numbers, their personal possessions and clothes were taken from them. They were given prison garb with their numbers on the chest and they were told to refer to themselves and each other ONLY BY NUMBER, no names were allowed.
The first day, things went easy and particularly uneventful. Almost as if the people hadn’t accepted or settled into the roles they were to portray. But, things quickly stepped up on day two and got worse and worse each day. By the sixth day, inmates had been beaten, humiliated, brutalized, psychologically tortured and it goes on and on. Also by this point, a number of inmates had selected to leave. Just after thirty-six hours a young man had some kind of mental breakdown and was released from the experiment. It is still unclear whether he faked the breakdown or if it was real. Several stories have been told over the years.
Although the experiment was fundamentally flawed in many ways, it DOES show what humans are capable of in such a short amount of time.
Now, let’s look at the movie. Adrian Brody plays a man named Travis. Travis lost his job at the retirement home where he was faithfully working to take care of the elderly. Forest Whitaker plays a man named Michael. He is a very loving, quiet and committed religious man who is devoted to helping his ailing mother. Each volunteers to participate in the experiment for the fee of $14,000 each. There are other people there who have convinced themselves that for $14,000 it can’t be that bad of an experiment, or experience for that matter. Everyone has their eye on the prize check at the end of the experiment. If they all participate, follow the rules and don’t leave or get violent, at the end of two weeks they each get $14,000. That’s a lot of money…to anyone. Especially someone who is freshly unemployed or has a dying relative…that kind of desperation is exactly what made them volunteer for something they knew nothing about. (I think that was a pretty dumb thing to do but, hey, nobody asked me so, moving on…)
So, they get everyone signed up and in their outfits and the guards have their quarters and the inmates have their cells. On day one, nobody is really taking their positions seriously. They are being watched by cameras all around the “prison” area. They are told that if anyone leaves or commits violence the experiment will be terminated and they will receive NO PAY. Money is a magnificent motivator for the human race.
The guards are told that they must maintain order at all times or they will not get paid. But again, no violence. They are also given a small list of five rules that the inmates are to follow at all times: inmates are to eat, and fully consume, three meals a day, inmates will participate in thirty minutes of rec time daily, inmates must remain in designated inmate areas only, guards are to ensure the inmates obey all rules and if any rules are broken or they are met with opposition they are to respond commensurately (equally or proportionally) within thirty minutes. If they don’t, a red light will turn on signaling the end of the experiment.
The red light is important. It’s supposed to be the signal that they’ve done something wrong. The guards come to depend on that very light for confirmation that they are doing the right things in the right ways.
Meanwhile, over the course of the next five days, Travis gets targeted for being the leader in the dissent amongst the inmates. Michael gets increasingly hostile and sadistic. At one point for punishment, they pull Travis from his bunk and tape him to a chair with duct tape. Then they shave his head, removing his long hair completely. After that, he is still defiant and it really pisses Michael off…so Michael and the other guards piss on Travis, literally. The abuse keeps escalating and escalating until a fight breaks out between Travis and Michael in which another inmate is struck in the head with a nightstick and killed. After that, Travis is put in isolation and the other prisoners are all separated to break up their ranks and comradery.
While Travis works on breaking out of isolation he can hear a fellow inmate being beaten and sexually assaulted in a room near where he is being held. Once he is able to get out of confinement he finds his fellow inmate being victimized and chokes the guard raping him unconscious. Together they go release the other inmates and then a riot ensues.
Travis meets up with Michael who is really the only one that WANTS to stay and fight, the other guards seem to be ready to call it all quits. But, Michael, oh no, he’s going all the way. And as he and Travis tangle with each other Michael attempts to stab Travis. Travis catches the blade of the knife in his hand and prevents fatal injury.
Then the famous red light goes on and a buzzing type siren sounds and the doors to the “prison” open and everyone walks outside.
They were totally in prison mode and it was like as soon as they saw the outside world the realization of the gravity of what they had done and been a part of hit them all like a ton of bricks.
Now, while this isn’t exactly a “horror” film, what happened during this experiment IS HORRIFYING. I’m still unclear as to what the professor at Stanford was trying to accomplish with this “study”. It is clear that people of all races, backgrounds, upbringing, religion and economic status are capable of some horrific actions and thoughts when put into a given situation.
These men that volunteered for this study were told that they would be either guards or prisoners and therefore, treated as such. But, the professor truly failed in setting guidelines for how to handle prisoners and when his few guidelines WERE broken, there were no consequences, not even the ones they were told they would incur. These “guards”, who were nothing more than regular broke college kids, were given free rein to impose their will and power upon those they perceive to be less worthy than they see themselves.
At no time during the escalation of abusive treatment did those running the experiment intervene. The experiments conducted in 1971 and 1961 (a group of people were told to administer “deadly” electric shocks to people they could not see seated in another room. The researcher found that a surprisingly high number of people were willing to administer the shock despite their normal moral code and values. No real “deadly shock” was administered and nobody died. Although many participants truly thought that they had killed someone by giving them the shock. It didn’t seem to bother a number of participants.) prove the old adage that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
This is a truly interesting and somewhat shocking film. We see a regular guy (Whitaker) who is soft spoken and somewhat controlled by his mother embrace the power he was given when, during his interview for the experiment, he was very nonviolent and submissive, a quiet man with little desire to be involved in confrontation.
We also see a very relaxed and down to earth guy (Brody) targeted and broken down because he stood up for what was morally right. Not by his own morals but by the morals that separate human beings from other animals. Our ability to empathize is key to separating us from the wild. This man tried to maintain some sort of moral order in a place where only the “morally corrupt” are housed. (Again, I submit that not all criminals are without morals. Ever hear of someone stealing food to feed their starving child???)
If you want a glimpse into how quickly a person can change when subjected to outrageous circumstances, you need to watch this film. You see the resolve of prisoners to hold onto some shred of humanity and you see the determination of the guards to impose their power and crush those who are deemed beneath them. This was truly a fascinating story about an idiot professor who couldn’t conduct a proper experiment, the participants involved and the lengths that people can be driven to in a very short amount of time.