'The Stanford Prison Experiment' Movie Review: An Abusive Authority Parable Behind the Times

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A still from the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment. IFC Films

Everything about The Stanford Prison Experiment is good except for the basic premise. Convincing and savage, The Stanford Prison Experiment unites a tight, living script with sharp direction and acting talent to dramatize a landmark demonstration of our unflattering fealty to authority and conformity.

But there’s a reason why the real Stanford prison experiment has become such a frequent reference point. Its lessons have been so widely absorbed they’re now more common wisdom than revelation. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment Trailer

As a document of events, The Stanford Prison Experiment is engaging enough. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, portrayed in the movie as an unscientific egoist who gets immediately compromised by his own vague experiment, randomly divides 22 summer student volunteers (promised $15 a day) into guards or prisoners. Taking their cues from Cool Hand Luke and some heavy-handed priming from Zimbardo and associates, the guards soon begin abusing authority and the prisoners become compliant shells. All the long-haired, chill sitch stoner vibes fly out the window. People are transformed into terrors or turtles. And the popular concept of human relations to authority gets its most potent parable.

The narrative that follows ramps up engagingly at first. But after “DAY 2” appears on the screen — a gasp-inducing reveal of just how quickly human nature spoils in an atmosphere of corruption — the remaining revelations are slight. The Stanford Prison Experiment is never dull and often entertaining, but the experiment can never be a cold splash of water like Errol Morris’ Standard Operating ProcedureThat Zimbardo is eventually brought to see the error of his ways may be true to events, but it can’t help but feel like too-standard storytelling from a movie about radicalization without anything radical to say.

That the Stanford prison experiment has been thoroughly absorbed by our pop culture is precisely the problem for The Stanford Prison Experiment movie. Movies like Punishment Park and Dogville have given us visceral lessons in the ways circumstance can turn humans abusive and callous. Populist thought experiments like Fight Club ask us to consider the systems that control our lives. The Stanford Prison Experiment may recreate a landmark moment, but its thematic ground never feels anything other than well-trod.

This handicaps The Stanford Prison Experiment from the start. Its lessons are no longer provocative and its politics no longer radical. For as effective as The Stanford Prison Experiment can be it always feel more archival than penetrating.

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