Top positive review
43 people found this helpful
Scary and topical
on 21 August 2004
One thing that is scary about this film is that it is based on a real experiment, carried out in 1971 at Stanford University, but what is really scary is how similar the fictional experiment is to the real one. The filmmakers really did their homework on this one: the dignity-robbing dresses the 'prisoners' have to wear, along with the flip-flops so they have to shuffle everywhere, the use of numbers instead of names, the 'guards' deciding to use press-ups as punishment: all of this was based on fact.
Obviously the film goes a bit further, and the situation escalates to a more violent outcome than the real life one did. I only read about the Stanford experiment after watching this film, and a few things which I thought were stretching credibility a bit turned out to be ones which which did really happen - a prisoner breaking down within two days seemed unlikely, but that actually happened at Stanford.
As for the film itself, it is very well shot, and the editing picks up the pace as it hurtles towards a conclusion. The acting is spot-on too. The only things that spoiled it for me was the strange sub-plot about the hero's girlfriend which was told in flashbacks interleaved in the main story. For me it was intrusive and detracted from the main plot.
As a piece of cinema on its own, this rates quite highly, but the real value of it is in the thoughts it can provoke if you start thinking about the implications, of how brutality can be carried out by 'normal' people if the circumstances are right, with the victims being dehumanised. It makes it easier to understand how some of the Nazi concentration camps were possible (which makes it especially brave for a German to make this film) and how some of the more recent events at Abu Ghraib were possible.
Perhaps the most scary thing about the whole experiment, is that the BBC decided to repeat it on film at about the time this film was being made. They put in some safeguards, like a rule about no physical violence/contact being allowed. Guess what? the same conditions were placed in this fictional experiment. Fortunately the BBC experiment didn't end as violently, but it was still abandoned half-way through because of the psychological effects on the subjects.
I did find myself wondering how people endure real prison sentences of years, seeing how a few days can effect someone, and the next time I see someone sentenced to one month in jail I will not be thinking that they have got off lightly! Any film that can inspire such speculation in the viewer must deserve five stars - I just took one off for the clumsy girlfriend sub-plot, and the lack of extras: a bit of documentary on the Stanford experiment including original footage, would have been perfect. Maybe they are saving that for a future special edition?