If you’ve ever taken a philosophy class in high-school or university, then John Huddles‘ new film “After The Dark” is going to hook you within its first three minutes. Depending on whether you were completely bored or absorbed in this class will determine how much you’ll connect to this movie, which plays out more like an adaptation of a philosophy student’s first, second and final thesis paper draft than an original screenplay written by Huddles himself. If, on the other hand, you’ve never had the pleasure of learning about Socrates’ endless questioning or Plato’s allegories about caves you might walk away thinking that philosophy classes are actually like this. Please don’t. The concept at work here is pretty great because it’s one you can’t help but want to see through to its end, but the third act derails everything into a nonsensical mash-up of rationale and emotion which spits and squashes any philosophical admirations this movie had to begin with. Imagine “After The Dark” as this version of the “train” dilemma that gets mentioned in the film: a train is headed towards two possible outcomes you control with a lever, it will crush five people or it could just crush one. If you don’t pull the lever it will crush five. Now imagine that after some impassioned debating, you are convinced that the lever must be pulled only to find out that it doesn’t work and five people are getting crushed regardless. The dilemma is rendered pointless and slightly insulting, much the same way we felt after watching “After The Dark.”
James D’Arcy is Eric Zimit, a philosophy professor in a Jakartan international school and he’s teaching the final class of the year. After a few exchanges, it’s evident that the class is compromised of highly intelligent philosophy students who fall between its best, Petra (Sophie Lowe) and worst, James (Rhys Wakefield), who are also something of an item. On the morning of their final class they are in bed whispering sweet nothings to each other but instead of waking him up for the same class they’re going to, Petra tells him not to fall asleep again – which he does. This slightly off-balanced bit of unrealism ends up being a mere fraction of the numerous examples of illogical moments and instances scattered throughout the picture. After a handful of the students who will be in the forefront get their introductions, we get reminded of some popular philosophical debates and the fascinating discussions that arise from thinking about them; the “infinite” theory of the monkey and the typewriter, the dilemma of the train described above and the “infinite bliss” paradox. These examples serve as an intro to Mr. Zimit’s final thought exercise which makes for much of the setting in “After The Dark,” compellingly taking place inside the minds of these students and their teacher.
The exercise set forth by the professor is one where the students are provided with random professions and the dilemma of having to choose just ten out of twenty-one for the purpose of restarting the human race after an atomic bomb decimates all life on earth (save for ten in a bunker). The setting becomes the ruins of Jakarta with atomic blasts in the distance coming ever closer, as the class debate on who stays and who goes. The professions range from carpenters, astronauts and organic farmers to opera singers and Gelato makers. With Mr. Zimit himself being the wild card, someone who knows something which may or may not be useful to the group’s survival. After choosing the ten people, they have to live in this bunker for a full year before getting out; whether they survive this year with the ten chosen is the endgame of this mind game. It doesn’t take a PhD in philosophy to know that carpentry is more useful towards the re-building of humanity than a harpist (without a harp no less, a clever observation) so the choice of the ten is quickly resolved and while there are some hilarious moments (one of the students randomly picks to be a poet, and he barely finishes announcing it before Mr. Zimit shoots him in the head —a brilliant moment) every one of the students appears to be taking this exercise with extreme seriousness. After some irrational decisions are made the movie gives the illusion of conclusion after the half hour mark, but it turns out that this was just the first round with two more to come. A well-played approach by Huddles for an unconventional cinematic exercise which serves to pull the viewer in even deeper, regardless of a few slip-ups along the way.
But everything falls apart rather quickly. After the second round of experimentation starts stretching the variables so much that they begin to tear, the complete rip by the end is like the monkey that ends up writing Hamlet after being given an infinite amount of time to tap away at the typewriter; inevitable. The performances from the actors don’t hold the film above water – D’Arcy and Lowe are the only ones who even come off as professional actors while the rest may as well be philosophy students who randomly picked “actor” in order to participate in Hubbles’ experimental movie. D’Arcy plays the professor well, with just the right amount of arrogance and quick-wit you’d expect, but his character’s arc is such a cliched disappointment it almost ruins a perfectly decent performance. Lowe is something of a rising star in Australia, and was at one point considered by David Fincher to play Lisbeth Salander. However, her Petra is an irritating A+ know-it-all and her languid manner of line delivery gives off the impression that she’s either incredibly bored or incredibly stoned.
We’d be able to give this movie a pass if it actually took its own original concept seriously, which is the biggest problem that “After The Dark” perpetuates. The final shot could literally be experienced as one big “fuck you” to the whole study of philosophy while Socrates, Kant and the other great thinkers do somersaults and cartwheels in their graves. The comedic moments like the one with the poet (still the best thing about this movie), the Gelato maker and the housekeeper who goes from being of “low value” in one round to being an example of “strength” in another, feel less and less intentional as the picture meanders to its infuriating conclusion. Once questions of religion and sexual preference start taking precedent over common-sense and reason, the movie begins to rip its own concept into shreds. There could be those viewers who may be able to watch this film and not mind its message, but then we’d have to put our philosophy hats on and question wether these viewers ever attended a philosophy class and if they care to understand the reasoning behind philosophical debates. Hubbles developed a nifty concept and was doing it cinematic justice through the hyper mind-settings of the proverbial bunkers, but once that lever was pulled and the film’s concept was rendered pointless, we only cared about the answer to one question: “when is this going to end?” [D]