It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Students of high school or university psychology classes are probably familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment. Run in 1971 at the behest of the U.S. Navy, the experiment intended to investigate the cause of conflict between guards and prisoners in military correctional facilities. Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his team chose 24 male Stanford students and divvied them up into guards and prisoners. Turning the basement of one of the student halls into a makeshift prison, Zimbardo placed his subjects under surveillance and watched as the prisoners became passive and the guards exhibited authority by way of sometimes sadistic psychological torture. Zimbardo ended the experiment 6 days into its 2-week run, mostly due to the objections of his fiancée. She felt Zimbardo had become an unhealthy part of his own experiment.
A documentary about this could potentially be fascinating, as some of the actual experiment exists on film. Unfortunately, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a dramatization, and no matter how much it may adhere to the well-documented specifics of Zimbardo’s work, it is a massive failure. It prefers to abstract the experiment from any psychological theories or details, opting instead to merely harp on endless, repetitive scenes of prisoner abuse. One particular guard, who thinks he’s Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke,” abuses the prisoners. The prisoners take the abuse, rebelling once or twice before becoming passive. Zimbardo glares at a TV screen doing nothing while his guards break the rules of the contract everybody signed at the outset. Repeat ad nauseum.
These scenes are supposed to shock the viewer, but they did not work for me, because I just didn’t care. The film reduces the entire experiment to a Dead Teenager movie whose slasher just roughs them up. Prisoners are referred to by numbers in order to strip them of their personal identities, and the film keeps them at this level of distance. We never get to know any subject outside of brief sketches, so the victims become disposable. Despite the best efforts of the actors on both sides of the law, the film is completely clinical in its depiction, striking the same note for over 2 hours. It gets real dull, real fast.
I didn’t care because this isn’t remotely like an actual prison; it’s a bunch of privileged kids playing dress-up for $15 a day. Even a priest Zimbardo hires as a prison chaplain tells the doctor “it’s good that these privileged kids experience prison life.” The actual reasons for the experiment (and its military involvement) are never expressed in Tim Talbott’s screenplay, so the priest’s comment almost serves as the reason for these tests. And the film takes great pains to tell us that nobody in the experiment suffered “long term psychological damage” after it was abruptly cancelled. I’m sure someone who has experienced the harsh realities of actual prison life would feel relieved that these young men weren’t scarred.