“The Experiment” is the type of the film that you watch when you’re just fed up with people in general. Its nihilist message will surely make you feel better about yourself because it just reinforces the belief that our fellow man is on the same scale as wild monkeys and rabid boars. Under the right conditions, we are the definition of vicious — “addicted to or characterized by vice; grossly immoral; depraved; profligate” – yep, it seems just up the human being alley and if you want some evidence to back up my statement – watch the news later. I guarantee you that a majority of the news reports will be about a murder, a home invasion, and perhaps even a few accolades to a soldier who was killed in the very same combat that was started by the overwhelming desire for oil and/or blood.
This film, which is directed by Paul Scheuring, is not only a remake of “Das Experiment” but also Mario Giordano’s eponymous book. Luckily it avoids the pitfalls of many remakes, and remains a surprisingly fresh piece of cinema that just so happened to be destined for a direct-to-DVD release even though it stars big-names such as Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker. The only hypothesis that I have for such a faith is that it had the same problem as “Unthinkable,” in which it either didn’t have the funding or the supporting (because of subject matter), but I assume that it’s lack of money as countless torture porns, which much heavier and darker themes, are released almost weekly.
“The Experiment” follows a psychological study in which 26 men are chosen to participate by playing out the roles of guards and prisoners in a “controlled” environment. Of course, money is a chief motivator for these guinea pigs and the meaty $1,000 a day for two weeks is thus extremely mouth-watering. But things don’t go according to plan and the prisoners, who lose their civil rights, are forced to live under a tyrannical rule by the hands of the guards, led by Barris (Whitaker). Travis (Adrien Brody), a typical hippie, establishes this role as leader for the suffering inmates, which, of course, doesn’t sit quite well with Barris – who loves his newfound powers.
Now, what’s interesting about “The Experiment” is the amount of parallels it has to another film, “Animal Kingdom,” which is an Australian import. Both sport the same dark themes and address the same topics, and even the introductions to both films are similar – but not quite copying each other. “Animal Kingdom” starts by showing a slideshow of robberies in progress, which is basically the moment where the film’s intellectual ammo is being loaded; meanwhile “The Experiment,” which tries the same technique, uses videos of wild animals fighting. However, the videos quickly switch over to human violence – which is basically the pivotal moment where it becomes explicitly clear that Scheuring (who also wrote the screenplay) means business when he claims humans are quite similar to the rest of the animal kingdom – which, of course, sparked one IMDB.com user to ask “Are we so different from the rest of the animal kingdom?”
Barris is an interesting character. What’s perplexing about the character is that Barris not presented as cold and heartless in the beginning of the film, but quite the contrary actually. He is a religious man, one whom you wouldn’t expect to be tyrannical but although he admits his strict beliefs, he lusts his newfound control – in a quite sexual manner. In one key scene (which at first may seem idiotic and laughable), Barris gets an erection following his first act as “upholder” of order. Another scene in which his need to control comes forth is when he forces Travis to proclaim that he “is the prisoner.” There are several reasons for this metamorphosis, one being that Barris feels like a God in the prison, where the inmates are mere playthings. Another hypothesis is that because he still lives under the control of his mother, who lives with him (keep in mind, he’s middle aged). Barris finally feels like the dominate figure in the “household” and showcases his power over his “children” as if an abusive parent.
But unlike “Animal Kingdom,” “The Experiment” does have a slight ray of hope. Travis is presented as nurturing and caring throughout almost the entire film, but that hope is quickly tarnished in the third act, when he becomes animalistic himself when tensions rise in the prison.
But though Whitaker and Brody give excellent performances and the script caters to these characters excellently, “The Experiment” does have a couple of flaws. For one, we are introduced to Nix, an Aryan race member who secretly hides his past. Nix, who is played by Clifton Collins Jr., is never really explained or fleshed out. His ominous tattoos are never fully explained and his entire “I was an inmate before” fiasco, which is made out to be a critical point by Travis, is never mentioned following the second act.
I also found the ending much too melodramatic and it also seems somewhat forced and compromised with a “we can change” message sewed in. This really makes the body of evidence that the film collected throughout its running span falter.
Overall, “The Experiment” is a fine film that deserves to be researched by any pessimists and/or any common film-lovers ready to experiment with the extremely dark underbelly of Hollywood.
. . .
Follow Mariusz Zubrowski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ItsJustMariusz.