After the Dark (John Huddles, 2013)
After the Dark (also released under the title The Philosophers), John Huddles’ first film in a decade and a half, starts out with an intriguing, sobering, and rather terrifying premise. Zimit (Exorcist: The Beginning‘s James D’Arcy) is a philosophy teacher at an Indonesian school containing some of the world’s best and brightest students. It’s the last day of his class’ senior year, and he’s not going to let them go without one last exercise. There are twenty students in the class, and Zimit makes twenty-one. A nuclear disaster has occurred, and they are within range of a bunker that can sustain ten people for one year, enough time for the radiation level on the planet to subside enough for it to become habitable again. Given a random distribution of talents (the students pick slips of paper from a box describing their professions), an exercise in pragmatism: who gets to go into the bunker? Who lives and who dies?
The execution starts off feeling somewhat cheesy, but is eventually absorbing; this is a mindgame, but it is a mindgame being played by the smartest guys in the room. It is perfectly believable that they would be able to immerse themselves so deeply into the game as to be able to visualize the scenes the way Huddles portrays them to us, as if they were actually happening, and to be able to take on the characters as deeply as they do. Would they really experience these existential crises that deeply? Yes, I believe they would, given their age and advanced mental ability. (All those nights we spent in college drinking massive quantities of alcohol and arguing about the world’s problems as if we actually had a chance of solving them…)
And then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
NOTE: the following paragraphs contain at least one minor spoiler regarding the setup of the film (I assume it was meant to be a twist). Proceed with caution as necessary.
I will admit right off that the first thing that rubbed me the wrong way about this film may not have been the fault of Huddles’ script (he wrote as well as directed). There may have been other forces at work there, he may have done all kinds of research and interviewed hundreds of people. “What would you do in this situation…?” But if all that did occur, we don’t see many signs of it. We just get, in the second iteration of this game, ten survivors who cling, as closely as possible, to the morality of today’s society, and when one of the survivors throws a wrench into the works, noting that a quirk in the way things are going necessitates the formulation of a new morality, everything goes off the rails, leading to the utter destruction of that iteration. At least one character voices the kind of knee-jerk resistance to the idea in such a way, given the word choice, the background music, etc., that Huddles wants us to believe that choice—to cling to modern society’s moral code on pain of death—is the right choice, and that the proposition of a new morality (coming from an ogre, basically) is the wrong one. Very little here in the way or moral ambiguity. Even if you agree that the choice is a correct one—and I will argue that to the ends of the earth with you, if you like—it fails the internal consistency check. Zimit’s entire purpose in playing this game is to expose the students to the practical applications of philosophy, one aspect of which, traditionally, has been the rational analysis of moral ambiguity. Any teacher worth his salt would have failed the students involved immediately for descending into chaos and violence when forced with a choice that is, ultimately, as minor as that one was.
But the real failure lies in the final twenty or so minutes of the film. Huddles seems unconvinced that he has painted his characters in broad enough strokes to show us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, so he throws in two related twists at the end that entirely hamstring everything he’s tried to do up to that point. Was his goal there to provide a rationale for the bad guys’ actions? To make the movie into more of a mystery than a thriller? To pad a script that wasn’t quite long enough for the producers? We will never know, and to be honest, by the time that last bit of silliness had ended, despite the strength of the film’s first half, I no longer cared enough to wonder about it for too long. **