An American remake of Das Experiment, which was itself based on a novel based on the 1971 Stanford experiment in which a group of student volunteers were arbitrarily assigned roles as guards and prisoners. Though this toplines two Best Actor Oscar winners and has a solid supporting cast of up-and-coming faces, it’s an example of a make-it-again project which screws up so much that worked in the original that you wonder why writer-director Paul Scheuring even wanted to do the film.
Comparisons are invidious, but Oliver Hirschbiegel started his film with the division process and only allowed the main character an outside life. This spends a reel or so on slacker Travis (Adrien Brody) losing a job, getting in a scuffle at a peace demo but refraining from dishing out a beating, talking with his dippy girlfriend (Maggie Grace) about her plan to go to an ashram he can’t afford and needlessly establishing the sort of guy he is, while we see conservative-suited, supposedly religious Barris (Forest Whitaker) quivering at home under the lash of a bedridden tyrannical mother. Interviews load other characters with backstory baggage: Chase (Cam Gigandet) is a sex addict (‘You know I only got three rules … eat twat, smoke pot … and smile a lot’), Benjy (Ethan Cohn) a chubby fantasist who wants to be a graphic novelist and is lying about his diabetes (he’s pretty much Piggy in this Lord of the Flies), Oscar (Jason Lew) is a bit gay and Nix (Clifton Collins Jr) is a real con and keeping in quiet. All the secrets suggest that Dr Archaleta (Fisher Stevens), the mad scientist in charge, hasn’t done even an elementary background check on the participants and the film never gets round to explaining what exactly he is thinking of or how the rest of his team feel about what’s going on.
After roles have been assigned, the scientists withdraw completely to be represented only by swivelling cameras and a red light on the wall which will go on if the ‘rules’ are violated (they say no violence) and the experiment is void. Here, stress is laid on the money ($14,000) the guinea pigs are getting for two weeks’ stay, and the guards – who somehow wind up with Barris, who goes psychotic, as leader – will lose out if the experiment is cancelled (it’s not said whether this affects the prisoners too). All this is supposed to add tension, but it just obscures the point – the way the situation brings out what’s inside these people, not how they’ve been manipulated (we get hints that the real experiment has already taken into account and even encourages the way things will deteriorate into carnage) or the things they’ve not told the scientists. Barris, played with atypical twitchy ham by Whitaker, finds hidden reservoirs of cool and cruelty as he enforces discipline, institutes a regime of excessive punishment (the guards mass-pee on the ringleader), plays obnoxious music and pushes the edges of the rules (he seems to deduce that violence is actually allowed). Travis becomes the cons’ leader, and suffers most (a haircut, that piss-drenching, ‘solitary confinement’ in what looks like a gingerbread oven complete with spy-cam), until the revolution and a long-delayed red light. A ridiculous coda finds Travis in India with the girl, showing her his bruised knuckles and wounded conscience, and a near-subliminal voice-over indicating Archaleta has been indicted for Benjy’s death.
When fights break out, everyone gurns like Kubrickian apemen (complete with low-angles and grunting) and dialogue about people being animals overstresses the elementary point – but it’s full of silly stuff (Nix rapes Oscar because he can’t jerk off to Club International in his dorm bunk), ‘significant’ speeches which convey less meaning than tiny moments in Das Experiment, and a conspiracy movie-paranoid-dystopian-science fiction vision of a social science project which undermines the premise (this is an evil experiment, not a neutral one). A strength of Das Experiment (sorry to harp on about this) and the thematically-similar Die Welle (based on another American social experiment) is that it keeps asking the audience to wonder what they would do in these circumstances – this keeps forcing you to think that nobody would do what these movie characters do (no one suggests just relaxing and waiting for the money, no one points out that after two weeks are up there will be consequences, no one asks why such obvious nutcases got through the selection process). Casting alone suggests there were higher hopes for this than straight-to-DVD doom.