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The Experiment (2010) Blu-ray Review

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Movie & Blu-ray Details

Director: Paul T. Scheuring / Writers: Paul T. Scheuring (screenplay); Mario Giordano (novel Black Box, film Das Experiment); Christoph Darnstädt, Don Bohlinger, Oliver Hirschbiegel (film Das Experiment)

Cast: Adrien Brody (Travis), Forest Whitaker (Barris), Cam Gigandet (Chase), Clifton Collins Jr. (Nix), Ethan Cohn (Benjy), Fisher Stevens (Archaleta), Travis Fimmel (Helweg), Lavell "David Banner" Crump (Bosch), Jason Lew (Oscar), Damien Leake (Govenor), Maggie Grace (Bay), Rod Maiorano (Rex), Rachel O'Meara (Female Administrator), Jeanne Hopson (Gertrude)

Running Time: 96 Minutes / Rating: R / Video Debut: September 21, 2010

2.40:1 Widescreen / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Suggested Retail Price: $30.95 / Blu-ray Release Date: September 21, 2010
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25) / Standard Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on DVD ($24.96 SRP)

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By Kelvin Cedeno

Like the 2001 German film upon which it's based, 2010's The Experiment poses an interesting question: can a man be pushed so far from his comfort zone that he behaves in ways unlike himself? It's the type of sociological theme that seems ripe for a gripping character study. After all, most stories tend to thrive on character development, and this perhaps offers the most extreme example of that. Unfortunately, The Experiment doesn't really deliver what its subject suggests.

An American remake of Das Experiment, this incarnation centers on Travis (Adrien Brody), a pacifist who just recently lost his job working at a retirement home.
His girlfriend, Bay (Maggie Grace), is traveling to India for some good will work, giving Travis more of an incentive to find money fast on top of paying the rent. When a vague newspaper ad offers $10,000 to be part of a two-week research study, Travis leaps at the opportunity.

He's not alone in this. A timid, devout Catholic named Barris (Forest Whitaker) still lives with his mother and is taking part in this experiment to help pay for her recent hospital treatments. They and the other participants arrive at a prison furnished just for them and are given strict guidelines about how the experiment will work. Split into two groups, prisoners and wardens, they're warned that any failure to follow rules and keep order will result in termination of the whole project, and no one will receive their wages. As they spend more and more time in their location, the volunteers begin to slip into their roles a little too convincingly.

Refusing to eat the slop given to them, Travis (Adrien Brody) and the other prisoners confront one of the guards and thus set the wheels in motion for what's to come. What ever is to come?! Taking refuge in his religiously-decorated living room, Barris (Forest Whitaker) still can't escape the incessant rants from his mother in the next room.

Despite its direct-to-video status, The Experiment is fairly slick and professional. The prison area obviously takes up the majority of the piece and as such, things are appropriately claustrophobic. It's hard to judge production values based on that and the simple prisoner and warden costumes, but they seem believable enough. Then again, in an era where television programming is looking more and more cinematic by the day, this isn't a major achievement.

The two leads do admirable jobs in their roles. Both Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker convincingly play mellow at the start of the film. Brody's role is down to earth while Whitaker's is more neurotic, and both undergo drastic changes. Their performances during the last act are a complete turnaround and interesting to see. Of the two, Brody's interpretation of his character's changes feels more natural whereas Whitaker borders on (admittedly fascinating) caricature. Their efforts at making the best of what they have are certainly apparent.

So if the production values are solid and the performances more or less work, what's the problem? There are two answers to that question, actually, and both deal with characterization. The first is that the film paints its strokes too broadly. Within the first 15 minutes, it's obvious what's going to happen to each character. Story elements aren't foreshadowed and set up so much as telegraphed in caps lock. Because of this, there's really little surprise in how events unfold.

Archaleta (Fisher Stevens) welcomes the volunteers to their new home for the next two weeks and carefully lays out the guidelines that must be followed. Bay (Maggie Grace) smiles at an Indian marketplace during one of Travis' colorful dreams.

In isolation, that's not a cause for concern since some of the greatest films of all time offer predictable stories. Where it counts is in the telling of such stories. It's here that The Experiment also fails. As said earlier, the actors do well portraying their characters in the first and final thirds. But while stages "A" and "C" work fairly well, the transitional stage of "B" is almost nonexistent. The shifting character dynamics don't flow convincingly, and it feels as if we're watching a barebones summary of something more detailed. Considering the story is more ham-fisted and obvious than it needs to be, that automatically requires the presentation to step up and bear the brunt of the responsibility. That it doesn't means other elements using it as a foundation begin to crumble.

Having not seen Das Experiment, it's difficult to tell how this works compared to that. Apparently that film made its characters more well-rounded and played out in a smoother, subtler manner.
It's a shame this remake couldn't do likewise. It takes a brilliant premise and churns out a pedestrian piece of work. It's never terrible and holds one's interest for the most part, but there's no investing in any of the characters or their journeys. A viewing of the much-lauded original is probably more advisable.

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Experiment premieres on Blu-ray in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Despite the probably smaller budget, the image is first-class. Razor-sharp and finely detailed throughout, the image is clean and free of print and digital defects. A nice level of fine film grain gives texture to the picture without becoming a distraction. The mostly monochromatic color palette looks to be accurately replicated while blacks and shadows look deep and sturdy. Film misgivings aside, the transfer excels.

The DTS-HD 5.1 track is more reserved in comparison. Dialogue is the main course here, and that comes across crisply and naturally. At several moments surrounds are played with (most notably when we hear overlapping thoughts running inside one character's head), but sound is mostly relegated to the front. Music just barely opens up the back channels but is honestly too low key to really be noticeable. The track accomplishes what it sets out to do, nothing more or less.

The Blu-ray Disc's main menu presents four security camera windows that each display their own footage of the prison and its inhabitants.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

There are absolutely no supplements to be found here, lest one counts the previews. Two of these, for Sony 3-D World and Red Hill, play at the start of the disc.
They can also be found on the dedicated menu along with trailers and promos for 30 Days of Night: Dark Days, Game of Death, Harry Brown, The Secret in Their Eyes, and "The Pillars of the Earth."

A link to Sony's BD-Live is also accessible from the menu but couldn't be accessed prior to street date for this review.

The disc's main menu is split into four security camera windows that play a mix of film clips. The pop-up menu at the bottom opens upward, accompanied by clicking sound effects while toggling and selecting. The loading icon is designed as warning stripes that changes from black and gray to black and yellow.

The disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with side snap. The double-sided sleeve artwork allows for a collage of promotional stills to be seen on the interior of the case. A pamphlet advertising other Sony titles on Blu-ray is also included.

The volunteers find themselves split into groups of prisoners and wardens, the latter of which find themselves at a disadvantage numerically.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Experiment had the potential to be something thought-provoking and haunting. Instead, it plays out like a broad and standard prison drama. Interesting performances from Brody and Whitaker keep the film watchable, but no better than that. Sony's Blu-ray disc provides pleasing video and audio but no supplements. There's little about this release to really recommend. While I can't recommend the original German film without having seen it, those intrigued by the story's premise would likely find a more rewarding experience there, if they can find it.

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Reviewed September 3, 2010.



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