Based on a real-life psychological test run in the 1970s that went horrifically awry, The Stanford Prison Experiment caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. With a release date on the way, the movie dropped its first trailer that illustrates we’re in for one of the best, most harrowing films of the year.
The story is one of the most notorious events in academic history. In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo embarked on an experiment to study the effect of becoming either a guard or a prisoner, backed by funding from the military. He and his team of graduate students took 24 male undergrads and put them in the role of either a guard or an inmate in a simulate prison scenario, and sat back to see how things would unfold. What they saw as the power dynamics of the various institutionalized roles bubbled to the surface went far beyond their expectations. All of which you see dramatized in this trailer as the guards start to give into their most base instincts.
As the roles the participants played took over, the guards began brutalizing the inmates and things spiraled completely out of control. More than a third of the guards exhibited what were labeled "genuine sadistic tendencies," and a number of prisoners suffered severe emotional trauma. Watching this, even a fictionalized version, it’s easy to see how this experience left lingering scars, this is tough to witness. Zimbardo and his team were criticized for a lack of scientific controls and allowing ethical violations to unfold under his nose.
This is a subject that has been covered in a number of books and plays and essays, but it’s taken some time to bring it to the screen. A number of the early reviews out of Sundance praised the Kyle Patrick Alvarez-directed film for the impact it has on the audience, creating a level of discomfort in the spectators. Aiming to draw viewers in and exert and influence on them (which, let’s be honest, is the goal of every movie), some have drawn parallels between The Stanford Prison Experiment the film and the actual experiment.
The Stanford Prison Experiment put together an impressive cast. Fronted by Billy Crudup as Dr. Zimbardo, the younger component includes Michael Angarano (The Knick), Ezra Miller (who will play the Flash in DC’s cinematic superhero universe), Tye Sheridan (the new Cyclops of X-Men: Apocalypse), Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and many more. Olivia Thirlby (Dredd) also plays Zimbardo’s wife, who has her own concerns with this entire set up.
The Stanford Prison Experiment gets a limited theatrical run starting on July 17, and it hits video on demand the following week, on July 24.