The Raft ★★★½

The newspapers called it the “sex raft,” but Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés always insisted that his experiment was only driven by a lust for science. An ambitious but altogether typical man whose interest in human conflict was galvanized by his experience as a passenger on a hijacked commercial flight, Genovés’ ordeal left him convinced that confined spaces were the ideal breeding ground to test human behavior.

So the wild-eyed 50-year-old had an idea: Genovés’ would invite 11 (younger) people from all over the world to join him on a giant tin can and float across the Atlantic Ocean so that he could monitor how they interacted and mine some valuable data regarding the origins of violence. Is it learned or innate? Is it possible for people to live in harmony, or are men hardwired for dominance? What would happen when a bunch of beautiful strangers stopped being polite and started getting real? The year was 1972, the Vietnam War was still raging on, and Genovés envisioned this crackpot idea as his personal mission to achieve world peace. But to do that, the scientist would first have to avoid killing everyone on board.

“The Raft,” Marcus Lindeen’s sensitive and spellbinding documentary about one of the dumbest and/or most dangerous scientific experiments of the 20th century, doesn’t seriously entertain the idea that Genovés was doing something important, but this film — made with the participation of the surviving crew members — is nevertheless buoyed by the insistence that Genovés was doing something incredible. Lindeen recognizes that even the most deranged pseudoscience can yield valid data (and a compelling story), and so he charts a course across the narrow sea that cuts between mockery and suspense. It’s a wild ride that plays out like a reality show prototype that was far too treacherous for TV.