I’m surprised in the trouble I’ve had separating Kyle Alvarez’s film about Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 college student pseudo-prison experiment from the questionable conditions and execution of the experiment itself. My ramblings keep transforming into a critique of the flaws within Zimbardo’s study, an argument I already made (and with much greater vehemence) in a term paper for a college psychology class a couple decades ago. And apparently my 18-year-old self—a delusional idealist with an extreme (and extremely short-lived) desire to be a paradigm-shifting social psychologist—instilled in me a permanent disdain for what Zimbardo attempted to prove, since I spent most of the movie feeling like the entire exercise was a stunning crock of shit.
This bias makes it difficult to watch Alvarez’s bluntly titled The Stanford Prison Experiment without growing frustrated at the film’s rather tepid take on the infamous 45-year-old study. Not that Alvarez eschews a slant; despite Zimbardo acting as a consultant for the movie, Alvarez’s reenactment has a moderately critical view of the way the experiment unfolded. Yet Alvarez and writer Tim Talbott play both sides of the field, offering mild indignation at the way Zimbardo’s research was conducted, but also attempting to legitimize the findings that came from it. The result is a film invested too much in the legend it promotes to question the validity of what it proposes. Notoriety becomes a substitute for observable fact, where an expectation in the latent awfulness of human behavior makes it easy to accept the conclusions reached instead of questioning how the data was gathered.
Granted, Alvarez and Talbott make these findings seem credible through the oppressive and dehumanizing conditions they recreate. The original experiment was held in a windowless, undecorated corridor lined with empty offices (the cells) and a broom closet (the hole), with the “inmates” spending 95 percent of their time within these claustrophobic confines. Alvarez does damn fine work capturing the onerous institutional anxiety brought on by such stark trappings, heightening the apprehension by pushing in tight on the faces of the guards and prisoners, always squeezing them together just a little too close for normal human interaction. The prison sequences are shot with glaring, nicotine-hued industrial lighting leeching all color and life from the occupants, creating a bleached, time-free limbo for the inmates to wait out their stay. It’s unnerving, to say the least, especially when juxtaposed against the dark, Fincher-esque pall Alvarez employs for any scene outside the experiment walls. No wonder the prisoners grow so distraught; two hours of merely watching this environment had me craving an extended neighborhood walk. They lived in it for six days.
Too bad the film never bothers to step back and question if the animosity and sadism that develops among the guards towards the prisoners—all fellow college students at Stanford before (and after) the study—is a result of the innate disposition of individuals to abuse authority, or a consequence of the parameters Zimbardo put upon the experiment. Alvarez and Talbott seem firmly entrenched in the former, even if they do give fleeting lip service to the idea that Zimbardo is creating the hostility in the guards rather than merely unleashing it. Yet the film ignores the less provocative aspects of the experiment, like a majority of the guards (two-thirds, or six of nine students) being rather amicable towards the inmates, or selection bias playing a much greater role in who applied for the study than Zimbardo cared to admit. Instead, Alvarez seems content to recycle vague textbook generalities summarizing Zimbardo’s work rather than developing a more incisive deconstruction of the entire experiment. And, cynical or not, it’s hard to deny this lighter touch is partly due to Zimbardo’s own involvement in the film. In this sense, The Stanford Prison Experiment does effectively reflect Zimbardo’s study: once again his failure to be an independent observer alters the outcome.