After the Dark (aka The Philosophers) (2013)

philosophersIt’s the final day of class for an international school in Jakarta, and a class of impossibly trim and pretty mid-20s 18-year-olds are settling in for their final philosophy class.

Key amongst them are James (Rhys Wakefield) and Petra (Sophie Lowe), our designated protagonists. They’re a couple, which apparently offends the teacher, Mr Zimit (Benedict Not-Cumberbatch), who makes his disdain for James’ apparent lack of intelligence very clear and his admiration of Petra’s super-intelligence even more so.

Zimit dispenses with the usual last-day-of-class slackness and makes them take part in a thought experiment. He assigns every member of the class a profession, then proposes a scenario in which everyone is facing the apocalypse and must choose who amongst them is worth saving.

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This is the bulk of the film – a live-action adaptation of their discussion and hypothesising. When the scenario runs its course the first time, it’s changed slightly and run again, then a third and final time with more changes.

Throughout it all, Zimit acts as antagonist, harsh and brutal, lofty in his opinions of his own intelligence and in control of the first two iterations, until Petra takes charge of the third.

Trailer is here; get an impression before we go ahead.

So in general terms, it’s not a terrible movie. It’s incredibly well-shot (with the exception of some noticeably cheap special effects at times), it’s decently put together and it’s not a total waste of your time. It’s not even acted particularly poorly – most of the cast do well enough with what they’re given – and it’s entertaining enough from beginning to end, in as much as it holds your attention.

There is, however, one huge problem with the film: the writing. Despite the best intentions and efforts of the cast and anyone who worked on the film, the script is one of the worst offenders for taking itself too seriously, thinking too much of itself, and not distancing itself enough from a core concept to be applicable to literally anything else.

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Now I’m gonna wager one thing here: writer/director John Huddles was a philosophy student. This is a film that drips philosophy from its many pores and wants you to know that, yes, it is enlightened, and it wants to you know that, yes, of course it’s willing to share its knowledge with you. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a philosophy student taking three days of classes and insisting on telling you they understand the way the world works now, and won’t shut up about it.

It has that same lofty air of pretension that masks those odious fools in the coffee shop who never seem to actually have to take notes but insist on discussing the deeper meanings of everything around them and how they definitely apply to X theory or Y construct.

In simpler terms, it’s a pain in the ass. A movie that loves the smell of its own farts and can’t come down from its self-built pedestal of smugness.

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So lets talk stakes for a minute. You kind of need them to have tension, and with very few exceptions, you need tension to have a story worth telling.

After the Dark is a stake-less movie. The problem is in its very concept – a class sitting around discussing ideas. I like the attempt in the film to visualise the conversations, except it doesn’t stand up to much (any) scrutiny. The visualisation of the film makes it more interesting to watch, but because the apocalyptic-scenarios so quickly and hilarious dissolve into melodrama, you can’t help but imagine the class of students sitting and actually saying the things their characters are spouting out.

It also means that there’s no reason to ever feel fear or tension in the film, because it makes it painfully and consistently clear that they are just sitting around a classroom, talking.

The only real source of tension in the film comes from the acrimony between James and Zimit, but the circumstances for this are revealed in a twist at the films end, meaning it has no effect on the scenarios and how they play during the majority of the film’s runtime.

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It also collapses from closer examination that you consider that some of the turns of events in the apocalyptic scenarios are just being discussed in the classroom. In all iterations of the apocalypse, procreation is seen as a key directive for the survivors. Zimit (having insinuated himself amongst the survivors) demands that all the women change their sexual partners to increase chances of fertilisation. One of the girls steadfastly refuses, pointing out that it’s basically tantamount to rape if she’s not given any say in who her sexual partner is.

As imagined in a nuclear bunker, she and Zimit then get into a serious fight, and it’s all very dramatic and intense (and just a bit ridiculous) until one of the other characters swoops into the room to make a surprise attack on the now deranged Zimit, and it’s all very gasp-inducing and suitably music-pounding – until you remember that these are literally people sitting around a classroom, discussing a scenario.

So either 1) the class is just imagining a consensus here of how it plays out, or they’re actually acting these things out in a role-play sort of way, or 2) they’re actively discussing who would do what and how, which means a high-school teacher is literally threatening to rape his student in front of the entire class. Now it is made clear that Zimit is wildly inappropriate and is probably facing an academic review because of some of his actions, but even so, it’s hard to suspend that much disbelief.

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It’s why it’s key for the film to have the cast enact each apocalyptic scenario – because what we see on screen can’t match up to what the class would be discussing (sex scenes, private conversations between people, individual characters having personal epiphanies, etc.) but having it all play on screen is a nice distraction that the writing behind the film doesn’t match up to what’s on screen.

And I get that it’s a relatively simple thing to say that the film would be incredibly boring if it were just the characters sitting around a table discussing things, but may I remind you that Community pulled off ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ doing exactly that and made it one of the best episodes of the show. After the Dark doesn’t lend itself well to the comedy side of something like that, but if they were to show more of the classroom and how the characters are enacting their scenario, it might tone down the sense that the film has grand delusions of how important and nail-biting its plot is.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 7.43.17 pmThe dialogue is also impossibly bad.

Now I get that it’s hard to convey complex theories in a movie that’s designed for as wide an audience appeal as is possible, but that’s no reason to have your characters all don a soapbox and just MAKE BOLD STATEMENTS for an entire movie. Worst offender for this is Bonnie Wright’s Georgina, who objects to the thought experiment and claims, in the most conceited and uppity tone imaginable, “It’s repulsive…it’s the sort of pseudo-science a gang of Nazis would’ve dreamt up in a beer garden…circa 1939!” and it follows a good 10 minutes of screentime where the class speaks textbooks as dialogue and it’s all presented as though people would ever actually speak like this.

Actual line of dialogue: “Ready. Set. Think!”

The film already takes itself way too seriously, but the dialogue makes it insufferable, because it makes you realise that the film isn’t aware of its own pretension. This film is the epitome of the idealistic philosophy student who considers themselves part of the enlightened elite and pities you your obscured mind because it’s not been as open to the ideas of other philosophers as they have.

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But it might have been forgivable if there had been any character work to speak of. Bless the cast – they try. They really, really try to make something out of nothing. I commend that, and you can tell that they’re all more talented than the script gives them any opportunity to show. But each and every single character in this film is written as a function and nothing more than that. At the start of the experiment, they announce the careers they’ve chosen, as though saying “structural engineer” is any insight into what the job would entail, but they might as well have said “idealist”, “hedonist”, “rationalist” for all the good it does to give any sense of character development. James has to declare his best feature, and he says “that I’m a pacifist”, because of course he does.

The most egregious example of this poor characterisation is Petra – heralded throughout the film as brilliant and amazing (though we never see any evidence of why) and thought of as too good for James who’s too dumb for her (though we never see any evidence of why) and clearly is meant to have reached some state of academic excellence that puts her completely above everyone else, to the point where she’s happy to walk out of the classroom in objection to the thought experiment until Zimit blackmails her with James’ grades to make her stay.

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After two failed iterations of the apocalypse scenario, with the class growing more and more disgruntled, Petra steps in and takes charge of the selection process for who lives and who has to fend for themselves, offering her reasoning as, “You all know me. You know what kind of person I am, for better or for worse,” and all I could think was “Well thank fuck somebody does!”

She’s a great example of informed ability in a character. We’re not given any evidence beyond what the characters say about her to suggest that she is any better qualified as a student in this class than anyone else. We’re told constantly that she’s amazing, but this breaks the rule of show-don’t-tell. The only time we’re shown any reason to accept her descriptions of brilliance is in the film’s denouement, when the twist behind Zimit and Petra and James is revealed but by then the movie is over and petering out its final scenes.

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Lest it be too far gone to realise at this point, the movie is not inexorable. It’s actually fairly enjoyable, especially if you’re with a group of friends who will join you in mocking and riffing it. It’s also worth congratulating a film that took an original idea and ran with it, even if it does so with ultimate pretentiousness. And as mentioned before, it is a super pretty film to look at, especially if you want male eye candy, as Rhys Wakefield and Freddie Stroma are filmed with such a loving lens that it almost borders on exploitative, but the locations are filmed sumptuously and it has a great visual texture to everything – for all the faults of the movie, you can practically smell and feel the classroom and the war bunkers, and I have no idea how it succeeds in that when it fails so dramatically in the fundamentals of telling its story.

If John Huddles was a philosophy student, then it’s almost sad how much this movie is an effort to legitimise that. When I was at uni, the most common phrase associated with the Philosophy students was “I think therefore I pass”, and I would have felt bad about that if the majority of philosophy students I have met were not all sanctimonious hipsters – an unfair stereotype perhaps, but the epitome of what this movie feels like. It’s like John Huddles really loved Philosophy but couldn’t understand why others weren’t falling over their feet to admire his enlightened mind, and made a movie to satisfy his need to prove that Philosophy is worthwhile.

Or put more simply:seriously


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