One theory has it that fictional stories appeal to us because they allow us to test out hypotheses regarding how we’d respond to various situations. What would you do if your lover left you? If you won the lottery? If dinosaurs attacked? If true, that theory might help to explain dramatists’ perennial fascination with the discipline of psychology.
Freud alone fills an entire sub-genre of movies, novels, and plays; Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments have been fictionalized a number of times (including in the new Experimenter, with Peter Sarsgaard); and now comes The Stanford Prison Experiment, the latest and most straightforward attempt at telling the strange but true story of Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 simulation of a prison on the campus of Stanford University.
As anyone who’s ever taken Psych 101 knows—or at least vaguely remembers reading about—Zimbardo, a 38-year-old professor of psychology, recruited 24 male students to serve as “guards” and “prisoners” in a simulated prison in Stanford’s psychology department. The students were randomly assigned to their respective groups, and though the experiment had been planned to run as long as two weeks, it was terminated after only six days after the students embraced their roles with frightening speed and assiduousness, some “guards” becoming sadistic while some “prisoners” accepted depravities, such as being forced to defecate in buckets, with surprisingly little protest.
It was experiments like this that helped to inspire the modern academic apparatuses of institutional oversight and human subjects committees, but Zimbardo—thanks in no small part to his own savvy self-promotion—became a sort of folk hero. The new film is based on his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect, which draws parallels between the Stanford experiment and Abu Ghraib. The new film is authorized by both Stanford and Zimbardo, which seems surprising until it becomes clear that director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer Tim Talbott are spinning this as the story of the experimenter’s redemption. (Zimbardo even showed up for the film’s Sundance premiere, complete with aviator sunglasses such as those his “guards” wore in the experiment.)
The film is certainly a gift to psychology instructors, but whether it’s a gift to the average moviegoer is less clear. What could have become a riveting hot-house drama is deflated by odd incursions from the outside world—a stiff bedroom scene between Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby), random appearances by an elderly professor (Fred Ochs) and a priest (Albert Malafronte), a visit from the students’ families that doesn’t really come into focus. The students’ characters aren’t well-explored: each plays his role, but we never really get to know these young men.
An example of how this sort of thing can be done much more effectively is Compliance, a heart-stopping 2012 movie that dramatizes a real-life incident in which a young woman working at a fast-food restaurant was horribly violated because several people failed to sufficiently question the authority of a manipulative prank caller posing as a police officer. There, everything comes together: we know these characters, we understand the stakes, and when events take a bad turn, we feel the situation with a gravity that the punch-pulling Stanford Prison Experiment never really summons.
What’s more, the understated Compliance invites consideration of broader questions of class and privilege more effectively than Stanford Prison Experiment, which has an ex-con (Nelsan Ellis) deliver a lecture on how the experiment has become uncomfortably similar to the Big House itself. Despite the fact that the former prisoner is black and all of the “guards” and “prisoners” are white or, in one case, Asian, the question of race doesn’t get so much as a whisper.
Despite Jas Shelton’s disciplined cinematography and Andrew Hewitt’s understated score, Alvarez’s film is ultimately no more than a functional telling of this story from a perspective that strengthens Zimbardo’s standing as the marquee bad boy of his discipline. If you choose to go, just remember: you’re free to leave at any time.