Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Reviews: 'The Stanford Prison Experiment' and 'Experimenter'

For fans of indie films, let's take a look at two recent titles: 'The Stanford Prison Experiment' and 'Experimenter'

As an author, I get to explore the nature of humanity through the creation of different characters. And, like most authors, it's safe to say that I'm a student of human behavior. Without such observation it would be difficult, if not impossible, to summon the different personality constructs necessary to provide a reader with characters that seem to live beyond the page.

To that end (and perhaps somewhat telling of my own personality) I enjoy stories, real or fictional, that explore the human psyche. I've had the pleasure to see two films straight to this point: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter.

Product DetailsThe Stanford Prison Experiment is a rendition of the actual controversial experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1971, following the account by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who oversaw the experiment. Fort those not familiar with the experiment, it involved the creation of a simulated prison environment with student volunteers playing the roles of guards and inmates. This movie is not dry by any means, even though it deals with what may be considered the rather intellectual pursuit of sociological effects on individuals.

As with the actual experiment, the movie leads the viewer down a very dark and twisted descent into what may be considered some very primal human reactions to unquestioned authority. What provides the real sense of dread in the Stanford Experiment was that the men involved were screened to rule out those with apparent negative inclinations. On the surface, the participants - both guards and prisoners - were normal, healthy young men who were only separated from the role of guard or prisoner by the flip of a coin.

While the increasing abuse exercised by the guards is disturbing, what is perhaps of equal or greater disturbance is the subjugation of the prisoners. It's hard to remember during the progression (or devolvement) of the experiment that all the participants were knowing volunteers acting out a simulation. Within the first day of the experiment things became all too real and consumed not only the volunteers but the researchers themselves.

Horrifying yet fascinating, this riveting portrayal of an experiment that continues to be a source of much debate is an experience that transcends the screen.

Product DetailsWhereas The Stanford Prison Experiment plays out cinematically with the tension of a psychological thriller/horror movie, Experimenter is a much more subdued but no less cerebral adventure into the human psyche.

The movie follows Dr. Stanley Milgram, the real-life Yale professor responsible for the Shock-box Experiment, in which subjects were instructed to deliver electric shocks to another test subject for failing to answer questions. The shocks were simulated, as were the cries of pain of the recipients, but what the study uncovered was the unerring tendency for the administrators to go ahead and deliver higher voltages of shock. As with the Stanford Experiment, the Shock-box Experiment continues to be a source of debate to this day, nearly fifty years later.

The movie continues past this one experiment to represent the ongoing work of Milgram and his exploration of some of the quirkier aspects of human nature and behavior. In particular, Milgram's work has the overall focus to reveal and understand how individuals excuse or distance themselves of responsibility in institutional situations. In short, the behavior is summarized in the moral black hole of the "just following orders" mentality. In the end, though, it is the Shock-box Experiment that serves most as his legacy, perhaps for the disturbing things it reveals about human nature.


For those interested in two pivotal moments exploring the darker side of the human mind, these movies provide an intriguing one-two punch of introspection. While The Stanford Prison Experiment involves a very different dynamic than Experimenter, both movies are anchored around solid performances that ground rather than orbit the unnerving implications of their subject matter. In the end, both movies remind us not to judge the actions of others quite so quickly. As viewers taken through the twisting journey of these films, we are taught that how people behave is a complex interaction of the individual, the situational context, and the exercise of authority.


Of course, being an author, I would be remiss not to mention the books that go along with these movies:

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For those interested in the Stanford Experiment, Dr. Zimbardo himself has written an account of the experiment he conducted. Entitled TheLucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, it also explores other breaches of morality in the real world over recent years, namely, the violations committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  For more on the Shock-box Experiment, Dr. Milgram's own Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View is available. Interestingly enough, the forward for Dr. Milgram's book is written by...yes, you guessed it, Dr. Zimbardo.