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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

The Experiment [Blu-ray]

 

(Paul Scheuring, 2010)

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Production:

Theatrical: Adelstein Productions/Mercator/Natural Selection

Blu-ray: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: FREE!

Runtime: 1:36:05

Disc Size: 25,924,648,701 bytes

Feature Size: 23,374,540,800 bytes

Video Bitrate: 26.89 Mbps

Chapters: 16

Case: Amaray Blu-ray Case

Release date: September 21st, 2010

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

Resolution: 1080P / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Audio:

DTS-HD Master Audio English 3770 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 3770 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)

 

Subtitles:

English, English SDH, None

 

Extras:

• (none)

 

Description: There’s a good deal of gestation going on here, as Paul Scheuring’s The Experiment is a remake of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2001 film Das Experiment, which was based on Mario Giordano’s book Black Box, which itself was inspired by the 1971 Stanford prison experiment (see HERE) Both the 2001 film and the new movie focus on a couple dozen men who volunteer for a simulated prison experiment. The men are assigned the role of either guard or prisoner presumably to study the effects of power and control on their psyches and behavior. The new movie may mark the first time a straight-to-video release was designated despite the presence of two (count them) Oscar winning actors, in this case Adrien Brody (The Pianist, 2002) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2006).

 

 

The Film: 5
Brody plays Travis, an out of work nurse’s aide who volunteers for the experiment, for which he expects to be paid handsomely, and after which he plans to go to India and hook up with his new girlfriend (Maggie Grace). We meet a number of the other volunteers as they are interviewed and given various preliminary tests, ostensibly to sort out their eligibility, but more likely, we imagine, to sort out who will be assigned as guards and who as prisoners. Travis is a laid back fellow whose moral code, he says, derives from his own sense of right and wrong.

Barris (Whitaker), who comes to the interviews and arrives at the “prison” in a suit, makes a point of defining his moral values in terms of his strong religious upbringing. There’s nothing subtle about how these two archetypes are positioned – so we are not surprised when Barris is culled out for guard duty, nor are we surprised that his black and white notions about right and wrong lead him down the path he takes with a vengeance.

The objectives of the Stanford experiment and of the movie are quite different. In the original experiment, the questions were: Given roles of power and submission, would “humanity” win out over abuse, and to what extent does peer pressure play a part? The movie accepts the unhappy conclusion of the original (in just a few days the “guards” became sadistic and the “prisoners” displayed symptoms of acute stress and depression), so it makes it a lot easier to follow the decisions and behaviors of the characters for Scheuring for him to stack the deck with types and oversimplify the action.

Indeed, complexity of character takes a backseat to an almost predetermined series of actions. We might wonder how na´ve can a guy be to volunteer for such a project, but for a diabetic dweeb like Benjy the “Flying Man” (Ethan Cohn) the question challenges the imagination. As for the “prisoners” I found it hard to accept how easily, quickly and aggressively they challenge the authority of the guards, having no clue that they, and eventually, the prisoners, would take their roles so seriously . . . which brings us to the carrot:

The person in charge of the experiment (Fisher Stevens) lists the Rules which, he states emphatically, if broken by any one person, then the “red light” goes on and the experiment is over and no one will be paid their compensation of $14,000 per man. You can imagine with such a carrot that motivation is high to stick to the rules. But what you might not anticipate – and this is what Scheuring wants us to understand – is how each person will rationalize and accept behavior if no action is taken by those in charge. For example, one of the rules is: no violence is to be tolerated. Another is that ALL the food served must be eaten. If the red light does not go on after a food fight or after a little violence, then something about the conditions of the experiment needs to be re-evaluated. But what? No one ever asks.

Moral authority and intelligence of the higher power is always assumed. The guards constantly make the assumption that those in charge know what they are doing and that the conditions of the experiment are as dictated, despite evidence to the contrary. I suspect Scheuring sees his movie as a metaphor for the relationship between Man and God – or, at least between Man and the Church, but such an idea is never articulated.

In any case the idea that people, the guards in this case, bequeath moral authority outside themselves is a smart one, if only the prisoners weren’t depicted as being as stupid as they are and the guards so quick to try on command. To wit: Very early on one of the prisoners accidentally hits a guard in the face with a basketball. Two Rules are thus set in motion: One states that no prisoner is allowed to touch a guard, another is that if any rule is broken, commensurate punishment must be exacted. The guards believe they must require some measure of punishment. The prisoners feel that the incident was an accident. The guards line everyone up and demands ten push-ups of the offending prisoner, who, in turn, has the temerity to demand a little civility in the asking.

 

 


Now we like this particular prisoner up until now. We even like that he wants and expects to be treated with respect while being “punished.” Mind you, we are talking about ten push-ups here, not one hundred. Push-ups, not lashes. And with $14,000 in the balance it is hard not to wonder why no one – no one – sees the humor of the situation, or, at the least, that ten push-ups is the guards attempt to go along with the rule that demands they act.

We can see this is going to be a bumpy, sadistic ride, for the dye is cast: if the prisoners are willing to challenge the authority of the guards over a mere ten push-ups, then it‘s time to show the prisoners who’s boss here. The audience needs only sit back and enjoy the brutality, speculating only if any modicum of decency will prevail, and what roles Barris and Travis will play in this.

And if it does, or doesn’t, will Travis get out alive, let alone to India? In any case, would he trade in his “liberal hippie” credential and become a Republican? If Barris were to survive, what would he have learned about himself, or, given the route he takes as a guard, would he be too overwhelmed with shame to take it in – if he survives, I mean. Does Scheuring position his movie only as a sadistic adrenalin rush for his audience, which would be fine, or does he give his audience the space to consider moral questions. Is The Experiment a leaner, meaner version of The Lord of the Flies or is it just Predators played out in a confined space? Can there be any doubt?

 

 

Image: 8/9   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

While not a particularly high-resolution picture for an high voltage action flic, the image gives the impression of film. Textures of skin, fabric, and metal are somewhat glossed over, but I don’t see this as DNR. The transfer retains the various bluish and desaturated filters of the movie, shadow detail is good, what there is of it given its tendency to high contrast and swaths of black. Other than this, I found no transfer artifacts, enhancements or blemishes.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 8/6
The uncompressed DTS audio mix is effective, if not as threatening as I expected, considering the content and setting. It’s never over-the-top, yet it has sufficient bass, power and metal. Dialogue shape and size is faithful to the space, clear even when whispered, and given a little more resonance for Barris as he devolves into his godlike stat

 

Operations: 7
For a movie without bonus features, The Experiment takes a while to load, after which we are treated to an ad for Sony HD 3D TV before settling into the main menu.

 

 

Extras: 1
Except for connection via BD Live, there are no on-board Bonus Features

 

Bottom line: 6
While there are some inherent difficulties with the screenplay, most do not rise to the level of completely trashing the film. Far from it. It’s still a hoot to watch the likes of Whitaker and Brody take their characters seriously, utterly without subtlety. Given Scheuring’s simplistic depiction of events I think the film would have been far more potent if the Maggie Grace bookends, easy as she is on the eyes, had been omitted altogether.

Leonard Norwitz
September 2nd, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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