Review/Analysis: After the Dark (aka The Philosophers)

I had come to believe that I’d never get to see The PhilosophersThe trailer came out almost a year ago and I quickly became obsessed with it, but it seemed like the film itself would never materialize.  It made the film festival rounds in 2013 but after that I heard no more about it.  On a whim last week I decided to dig through the internet to see if there was any news about the movie and discovered two surprising pieces of information.  First, The Philosophers had received a new name and was now called After the Dark.  Second, After the Dark had actually received a limited release in theaters last month and was right this second available on demand on my TV.  Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to watch the film that had hung steadily at the back of my mind for a year, like an itch I couldn’t scratch, and what I found was something unique and beautiful, that both lived up to my every expectation while subverting them at the same time.

After the Dark tells the story of a philosophy class at an international school in Jakarta, on the seniors’ last day before heading to college.  Instead of letting his 20 students slack off on the last day of class, their teacher, Mr. Zimit, proposes a final thought experiment, to cap off their year of study and to test their ability to use the logic they’ve learned in class.  He proposes a nuclear apocalypse and a bunker designed to shelter them for a year.  However, there is only room and supplies for 10 people and there are twenty students plus Zimit.  The challenge is how to decide who gets to live and who will be left to die.  Each student choses a card from a box, on which is written a profession which will form the basis for evaluating their worthiness for a bunker slot, while Zimit himself will represent a wild card, who may or may not have information or abilities crucial to their survival in the bunker.

Several students object to the seemingly cruel nature of this thought experiment, but after blackmailing them into participating by threatening their grades, they all agree to give it a go.  The film jumps into their collective imagination to show us the hypothetical scenario they’ve created, as they debate whether a structural engineer, a chemist, a doctor and a US Senator are of more value than a gelato maker, a harpist (without a harp), a fashion designer or a poet.  Zimit shoots the poet between the eyes before he can even make a case for his life, reminding them that logic should be the guiding principle in their decision making.  They make choices that seem in line with what most of us would pick, but after seeing Zimit kill all of those who were not picked, ostensibly to save them the pain of death by nuclear apocalypse, they decide to lock him out of the bunker.  Only after they do this, however, does he reveal that he’s the only one with the code that will allow them to leave after a year, meaning that their decision resulted in their death.

However, that was only the first iteration of the experiment, as Zimit resets the scenario and adds a wrinkle.  The bunker group will now be required to reproduce in order to repopulate the planet, and also that each student has another defining characteristic in addition to their job.  The carpenter is sterile, and theoretically of no use repopulating the planet.  The opera singer also speaks seven languages and could communicate with other bunkers in other countries, but also has throat cancer that will remove her ability to speak in three years.  The doctor may or may not have contracted Ebola on a recent humanitarian mission.  The soldier has an eidetic memory and the chemist is gay.  Decisions are made once more, although the process is more complicated, but Zimit’s actions when confronted with some of the emotional actions from the students starts to make them wary of his goals in this experiment.  As secrets are revealed and the situation is reset once again, it becomes a battle of wills between teacher and students, leading to both interesting and unexpected turns as things play out.

Writer/Director John Huddles has crafted a clever, exciting, tense and meaningful film, that has been advertised as a “thriller” though I think that’s a vast oversimplification.  There are some thrills to it, but the whole time we know that what we’re watching is simply the dramatization of an academic exercise and that no one is in real danger, meaning that the thrills aren’t the purpose of the story.  Likewise, there is a lot in the film that would appeal to anyone who has ever taken a philosophy class (popular Philosophy 101 thought experiments get brought up, discussed and visualized by the class in the film, including the Allegory of the Cave, the Trolley Problem, the infinite monkey theorem and the ignorant bliss paradox), however the movie is not really designed as a study in philosophy.  In fact, I’ve read a lot of complaints online that the film doesn’t live up to the philosophical standards it sets out for itself in the beginning, which feels to me like a vast misreading of the film, although to say any more would be to spoil the film’s ending.  (The ending itself, particularly the final shots, might understandably frustrate some viewers, but I thought it worked very well within the film’s themes.)

The film is simply gorgeous in every way imaginable.  Huddles wisely shot on some spectacular locations, including the Candi Prambanan in Indonesia, which give the film both a grounding in the world outside of the classroom while also giving it a sense of otherworldliness.  The design of the bunker, such a key aspect of the film, is exceptionally well done, feeling believable but also plush and exciting.  Everything from the costuming (which changes for each iteration) to the cinematography to the stellar score by Jonathan Davis and Nicholas O’Toole fits perfectly together and makes the film a feast as much for the eyes and ears as the mind and heart.

The film’s cast is particularly excellent, particularly as very few of the characters are given much of a chance to shine yet they’re all memorable in spite of that.  James D’Arcy is both challenging and menacing as the complex teacher, Zimit, and he carries the bulk of the first half of the film.  As the emphasis and the balance of power shifts to the students, the young actors start to stand out, many of whom will be familiar faces.  There’s Bonnie Wright and Freddie Stroma from the Harry Potter film series, Jacob Artist from Glee, Daryl Sabara who starred in the Spy Kids film series and many others.  Two students, a romantic couple, rise above the rest, however, as they attempt to oppose their teacher.  The class’s worst student, James (Rhys Wakefield), seems to get the worst of Zimit’s animosity and seems somewhat overwhelmed by the scenario.  On the other hand, James’s girlfriend, Petra (Sophie Lowe, by far the best thing about Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), seems to see right through Zimit and his designs, and takes the lead in challenging him.  Lowe, with her quiet manner and soulful blue eyes, is the real standout from the cast, as she plays Petra in a way that helps us realize that there’s more at stake in the film than the imaginary lives of the characters the students are playing.  In many ways, Petra is the film’s center, fighting both for her principles and on behalf of the others, and Lowe hits just the right note in the role.

It should be pointed out that Huddles has done a lot to give the film a multicultural feel in its casting.  Sure, there are the requisite numbers of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hollywood types in the film, but the 20 students are far more international than we’d ever see if this were a mainstream American film.  Not only from a variety of countries (actors or characters are Nigerian, American, Emirati, Indian, Canadian, Australian, Indonesian, Japanese, Iranian, Malaysian, British, Vietnamese and Turkish) and races, but backgrounds as well.  Several students are gay, and it’s nice to see other students stand up for them, and to treat something like a coming out not as the defining moment of an individual but as simply a piece of their being.  After the Dark handles this multiculturalism aspect not as something to be preached about but simply as a reflection of the nature of the world, and in an ideal universe I wouldn’t feel the need to comment on it because it would be common among films, but alas that’s not the case.

I really wish that After the Dark had gotten the full release I feel it warranted.  (I also wish they’d stuck with the original title, The Philosophers, which was much better.)  I doubt, a high-concept, conceptually science fiction independent film with no big name actors could have found much of an audience, but it deserved a chance.  I would have loved seeing this in a dark theater on the big screen, where its visuals would have been even more impressive, and hearing the audience’s reactions, but I guess that’s not going to happen.  Still, I’m glad that it’s at least available for people to see in one way or another.  So few movies these days dare to be creative or original, or even attempt to tackle big themes.  I expect to see debates about philosophy, ethics, logic and morality on TV on Star Trek, but in very few other places, and to top all of that off with an interesting and well-crafted story is truly special.  I may have had to wait a while for After the Dark, but it was worth the wait.

A

 

Analysis

There’s a lot to be discussed about After the Dark, both from the story itself and the film’s message.  To do that, however, requires going into some detail about the plot, so from here on out there will be SPOILERS AHEAD.  The setup for the film, as I said above, is a thought experiment proposed and orchestrated by a Philosophy teacher on the last day of school.  In the experiment, there is a nuclear apocalypse (during a field trip) and a high-tech bunker which will provide enough food, air and other resources (including weapons) for 10 people to survive for 1 year underground, to emerge at the end of that year in order to rebuild and repopulate the planet.  (The teacher tells them that there are 999 other similar bunkers around the world.)  Each of the 20 students are given a card with an occupation, but for the purposes of this role playing game every person stays exactly as they are other than the addition of the information on the card.  The teacher, Mr. Zimit, will play the “wild card,” who potentially has information or skills which might be necessary or helpful for those inside the bunker.  The students names and occupations are listed below, with those chosen for the bunker in bold.  Keep in mind that Petra is the “main character” of the film while James is her boyfriend.  This will be important later.

 

  • Petra – Structural Engineer
  • James – Organic Farmer
  • Georgina – Orthopedic Surgeon
  • Chips – Carpenter
  • Jack – PhD in Chemistry
  • Bonnie – Soldier
  • Andy – Electrician
  • Vivian – Zoologist
  • Beatrice – Fashion Designer
  • Parker – Gelato Maker
  • Utami – Opera Singer
  • Poppie – Psychotherapist
  • Omosedé – U.S. Senator
  • Kavi – Real Estate Agent
  • Russell – Harpist
  • Plum – Hedge Fund Manager
  • Toby – Poet
  • Nelson – Housekeeper
  • Mitzie – Wine Auctioneer
  • Yoshiko – Astronaut

 

After some debate the nine students above are chosen for slots in the bunker, as well as Mr. Zimit as the “wild card.”  Zimit encourages them to make their decisions based on logic by shooting Toby the poet in the head as soon as he reads out his occupation with a gun he stole from the bunker.  He argues that there’s no way a poet is worthy of a slot in the bunker and that shooting him was more humane than letting him die of nuclear fallout.  He also reminds them that when in doubt a woman has the advantage over a man because of her ability to have children.  They make their choices much as you or I would do, picking the people whose skills most easily translate into survival inside the bunker and after as well as rebuilding.  The electrician, structural engineer and carpenter all would be of use in rebuilding, while the organic farmer can of course help provide food.  The orthopedic surgeon provides much needed medical ability, and the chemistry PhD might be able to help both on the medical and rebuilding side of things.  They choose the U.S. Senator based on her ability to negotiate and lead, and the soldier on her ability to keep the peace.  Lastly, a psychotherapist would be necessary for anyone who had to choose 11 of their classmates to die while they shelter for a year as most of humanity is wiped out.

James suggests that they all take 5 minutes to be alone before they go into a cramped space for a year, but while they are separated Zimit shoots the other 11 students, claiming that they asked him to in order to spare themselves a slow death.  Petra confides to James that she doesn’t want Zimit in the bunker with them, given his violence and coldness, and they eventually trick him and manage to lock themselves in the bunker with Zimit outside.  The first night, things go fairly well, as James and Petra enjoy spending time together.  However Petra walks to the door to see Zimit sitting there, and he holds up a piece of paper on which he has written that he is the only one who knows the exit code.  Over the year they watch him die of starvation and radiation outside the window and be eaten by the few surviving wild animals, hoping that he was bluffing and that they can still get out.  Once the year is up they are unable to open the door, and as the food runs out and they resort to cannibalism to last a few weeks longer their air eventually runs out and they all die.

The students see this as unfair and arbitrary, but Mr. Zimit points out that they acted out of emotion, in this case fear, to keep him outside when they should have been using logic.  He reveals that he knew the bunker code because his occupation was that of a bunker builder, and he created the code required.  He tells them that they’re going to try the simulation again, hopefully sticking to logic this time, but with an added wrinkle.  On the back of each occupation card are some more details about the person, complicating the situation.  Also, this time around he adds that they will be required to have at least one child in the works by the end of their year in the bunker.  Everything else remains the same, including Zimit as the wild card (and keeper of the exit code) as well as the fact that everyone will still be exactly like themselves beyond the information on the card.  Below are the names, their occupations and the “new information” for each student, with those chosen for the 2nd bunker in bold and those chosen for the first in italics.  (Note that for some reason we never hear what Yoshiko’s new information is, and once again Toby the poet is shot as soon as he says his occupation, before we can learn anything more.)

 

  • Petra – Structural Engineer – Is also an electrical engineer.
  • James – Organic Farmer – Is gay.
  • Georgina – Orthopedic Surgeon – May have come into contact with the Ebola virus while on a humanitarian mission.
  • Chips – Carpenter – Is sterile.
  • Jack – PhD in Chemistry – “Won the genetic lotto” meaning he won’t get any major diseases and will live to 103 barring some sort of accident.
  • Bonnie – Soldier – Has an eidetic memory.
  • Andy – Electrician – Has Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a genetic disease which causes the tissues in his body to turn to bone while repairing injury, no matter how small.
  • Vivian – Zoologist – Writes a blog for PETA
  • Beatrice – Fashion Designer – Created an award winning outfit from bamboo cashmere, meaning she’s a “left brain/right brain” thinker.
  • Parker – Gelato Maker – (His card is blank on the back, meaning there’s no new information for him.)
  • Utami – Opera Singer – Speaks 7 languages, however has throat cancer that will render her unable to speak in 3 years, although she will survive.
  • Poppie – Psychotherapist – Had a hysterectomy at age 12 due to ovarian cancer.
  • Omosedé – U.S. Senator – Would have become the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
  • Kavi – Real Estate Agent – Also a midwife.
  • Russell – Harpist – Has an autism spectrum disorder.
  • Plum – Hedge Fund Manager – Because of a fear of the apocalypse always carries $5 million in gold, platinum, diamonds and sapphires with her at all times.
  • Toby – Poet
  • Nelson – Housekeeper – Also the nicest guy ever, the sort of person the angels in heaven will bow down to, assuming there is a heaven.
  • Mitzie – Wine Auctioneer – Has an IQ of 200.
  • Yoshiko – Astronaut

 

This time around, Mr. Zimit is included in the bunker group.  Six of the nine bunker survivors from the first round make it to the second.  The orthopedic surgeon is left out because of the possibility that she has Ebola, the electrician is left out both because his disease means he most likely won’t last long in a post-apocalypse (plus it’s genetic) but also because Petra’s second career as an electrical engineer makes him superfluous, while the psychotherapist loses her spot to someone more likely to be able to bear children.  The new addition of the real estate agent is chosen in order to make up for the loss of the surgeon in terms of medical knowledge, plus his ability as a midwife will help with the added mission of producing a child.  The hedge fund manager is chosen because her stockpile of precious metals and gems will prove useful in negotiating with other survivors after they leave the bunker.  As for the housekeeper, he’s chosen in in part to add another male to the group but also because, as the U.S. Senator says, a strong working class is vital to the survival of any society.

However, the decision process is much more complicated.  Arguments are made for leaving James out because he is gay, although he points out that he still will be able to reproduce.  The same argument is made with regards to the carpenter being sterile, but they decide a carpenter is absolutely necessary and that they have enough other men to get the job done.  The first night in the bunker, Petra discovers James having sex with Jack, the chemistry PhD.  This surprises everyone, as being gay wasn’t on his card, but he reminds them that other than what’s on the cards they’re the same as they are in real life, and he is gay.  When it comes time to pair up for reproduction, things get a little complicated, as James and Jack refuse to participate, feeling that sex with a woman would be against their principles.  The real estate agent/midwife refuses to pair up with certain people based on his religious practices, but in the end each woman is successfully paired up with a man.

Mr. Zimit calls them together to say that after several months no one has yet gotten pregnant, and that they will start rotating partners and all of the men will be included.  Bonnie, the soldier, objects to this, and says that she’ll kill Mr. Zimit if he touches her.  He pulls out a gun and forces everyone else from the room, intending to rape her.  However, Jack hides and attacks Zimit before he can do anything to Bonnie, stabbing him in the ear with a pencil.  Mr. Zimit gets back up, staggers down the hallway, and before anyone can answer he enters to code and unlocks the bunker door, letting in the nuclear fire and killing them all.

 

At this point it’s clear that something else is going on beyond a simple philosophy exercise.  Zimit’s actions, while unpredictable and unfair in the simulation, seem to be forcefully punishing them for any illogical decision they make.  On an intuition, James snatches the box from which they all drew their cards, and inside he discovers a secret compartment which would have allowed Mr. Zimit to give a particular card to the first two people to draw from the box, who just happened to be the romantic couple James and Petra.  James wonders what the point was of giving them both professions that would ensure their inclusion in the first bunker, while making him gay in the second and doubling down on Petra’s worth.  He asks why Mr. Zimit didn’t just make James a florist if he wanted him left out of the bunker.

The class is seemingly on the verge of breaking apart, but one more iteration of the experiment is called for, with the only change being that James has now been reset as a florist.  Before they begin debating the slots, although very little has changed, Petra gives Mr. Zimit a seemingly harmless hug.  She then goes before the group and asks them to let her decide the slots, hoping that they’ll trust her.  They all agree, and she singles out people, starting with James, the florist.  With each choice she makes, Mr. Zimit tells informs her that her grade in the class has dropped a notch, from an A+ to an A and so on.  She chooses Jack, the chemistry PhD who won the “genetic lotto” and who also is gay in real life.  Next up is Georgina, the orthopedic surgeon who might have Ebola.  When Mr. Zimit asks how she can choose someone who might kill them all, Petra replies that she prays that Georgina does not have the disease.  Next is Russell, the harpist with autism, as Petra explains that some people believe that autism is a gift.  Next is Utami, the opera singer who will lose her voice in three years, and Petra points out to Zimit that at least for a year in the bunker she’ll be able to fall asleep to music.  Next is Mitzie, the wine auctioneer with an IQ of 200, and Petra points out that Mitzie brought a case of red wine and a case of white wine with her on their field trip.  Next is Beatrice, the fashion designer, because Petra says that looking good will boost their self-esteem and self-esteem boosts production.  At this point, Jack points out that everyone seems to have a pair except for him (because James is no longer gay), and asks the class for someone who is gay to step up.  No one else had “gay” written on their card, but Jack points out that statistically speaking probably another person in the class is gay in their real lives, and everyone is surprised when Parker, the gelato maker comes out during class and joins the group.  She then picks Toby, the poet, and she reveals that on the other side of his card it says he’s also a champion poker player and he brought a deck of cards with him.  Petra says that she didn’t ask to choose in order to give herself a slot, and so after offering her spot to Bonnie, the soldier, who refuses, she selects Chip, the sterile carpenter for the final spot.

Mr. Zimit has knocked Petra’s grade down a bunch by this point, and is definitely angry that Petra seems to be ignoring everything he taught her and missing the point of this final lesson on logic.  He also points out that without him they won’t have the exit code, so they’ll be trapped forever like the first iteration.  However, Bonnie pipes up and says “73872” using her character’s eidetic memory to remember the code from the previous iteration.  Zimit goes for his gun, wanting not only to force his way into the bunker but also seemingly to force the unworthy James out.  However, Petra stole his gun when she hugged him, and James has another gun from inside the bunker trained on Zimit.  She gives Zimit his gun back and he immediately fires it at James, but there are no bullets inside.  She gives him two bullets only and tells him to leave, and he eventually does.  Petra tells the group that she and the other non-bunker people will take the boat (they’re on an island) and will try to find another island somewhere away from the apocalypse.  Chip tells her that he has the boat keys, and when she goes to get them from him he grabs her and pushes her inside the bunker, smashes the button to close the doors, and hops out before it slams shut, switching places with her.  He takes the keys and leads the remaining group to the boat while the rest head inside the bunker.

Petra narrates the year in the bunker with the people she chose.  It’s a year filled with art, literature and poetry.  They have Shakespeare readings, and Beatrice paints murals on the walls.  Toby teaches them card tricks and they bet using the briefcase full of gold and jewels that Plum was kind enough to leave behind.  Petra builds Russel a harp out of spare materials in the bunker, and he performs while Utami sings opera.  Parker, the gelato maker, loves to dance as a form of self-expression.  And every week they have a new poem from Toby, who in his poems helps them find a way to cope with their situation and to celebrate life.  And all the while they pray for their friends, the other survivors, the animals, their parents and for god’s plan for them.

After a year in the bunker they emerge and find that the bombs never fell on their island, but Mr. Zimit points out that they may have survived a year but they’ll all die off because none of them have the skills necessary to survive.  Petra replies that that doesn’t matter.  “We live; briefly, yes; imperfectly, of course; stupidly, sometimes; but we don’t mind, because that’s the way we were made.  And when it’s time to die, we don’t resist death.  We summon it.”  They all look into the sky and a bomb falls and lands on the beach next to them.  It has a glowing red button on it, and James reaches out to push it when they hear a gunshot.  Mr. Zimit appears, having hid in a cave and lived off rats for a year.  He looks terrible, but he still has one bullet left, and he intends to use it on James to prevent him from destroying everything.  However, Petra stands in front of James, and another survivor stands in front of her, and so on until they’re all lined up, with Toby the poet at the front facing Zimit.  When he doesn’t pull the trigger, James reaches over and pushes the button, setting off the bomb and ending it all.

 

Now, at this point you’re probably wondering what the point was of all of that.  It seems like the movie has completely abandoned its philosophical exercise in favor of some hippie love-in that has nothing to do with logic or the principles that the film established at the beginning.  In fact, the final third of the movie is what has caused such an angry response online among people who are trashing this movie.  They liked the setup for the film, but dislike this final iteration as not making any sense, and criticize Zimit’s actions throughout the film.  They also argue that everything that comes after the third iteration is pointless and has relevance to the story.  However, I believe they missed the point of the film, as the “twist” ending that’s revealed colors everything we’ve seen before and reshapes our idea of what we’ve actually been watching.

You see, after all of the other students leave the class, Petra stays behind to talk to Mr. Zimit.  We learn that Petra and Zimit either previously had or were currently having an affair (the movie isn’t clear on whether it’s ongoing), and that Zimit is angry that Petra has chosen to be with James.  She is the best student in the class and James is the worst, and Zimit things that James isn’t nearly good enough for her.  James and Petra will be going to the same university in the US in the fall, but Zimit wants her to stay in Jakarta with him.  He argues that they are the best (i.e. most logical) choice, and that they could be great together.  Petra agrees, but says it doesn’t matter as she is in love with James and is choosing him.  She says, “Being smart isn’t everything.  Has it done for you just what you’d hoped?”  She gives him a final kiss and leaves, and we see three possible endings for Zimit, each beginning with him walking down the hall to his office and taking a seat at his desk.  First, he simply opens his lunch and eats a sandwich, going on with his life as normal.  In the second one he pulls a gun out his drawer and we hear a gunshot, the assumption being that he ended his life rather than go on without Petra.  In the third, he sits at his desk and has a vision of Petra smiling, symbolizing that he might have learned something from her in this final class and is following her example.

You see, the thought experiment presented in the film was a way for Zimit to try to convince Petra to make the “logical” choice instead of the emotional one.  Petra realizes this even if none of the other students did, and Zimit admits it.  That’s why James and Petra were given specific roles to play while everyone else got random characteristics.  It also explains Zimit’s emotional and seemingly arbitrary reactions to things.  In the first iteration, Petra chooses James based on his organic farmer qualification, a logical choice, but keeps Zimit out of the bunker based on an emotional reaction.  As a result, he “punishes” them by saying he’s the one with the exit code and that they all die.  In the second iteration, James is revealed to be gay, presumably causing problems reproducing, and revealing him to be different than what Petra expected.  Zimit hoped that this trick would make Petra see that James isn’t what she thinks he is.  Once inside, Zimit is coldly and even cruelly logical, forcing the women to rotate partners in order to force a pregnancy, and when the group reacts emotionally and fights back he punishes them by opening the door and killing them all.

He’s trying to make the case to Petra that logic is the only way to make decisions, and that anything else leads to ruin.  However he is of course just using logic as a smokescreen for his own emotional attachment to Petra, hence his responses when things don’t go the way he planned.  In the final iteration, Petra sets out to show her side of the story, showing that choices made on emotion which sometimes defy logic may lead to ruin but can also lead to a richer and fuller life, even if it is shorter.  She’s willing to take that risk and open herself to the possibilities if it means her time will be the better for it.  Zimit’s focus is all on the final outcome while Petra’s is on the journey.

 

In some ways, After the Dark is something of an indictment of philosophy.  Early in the film, before even the first iteration, the character Jack shares something he recently read in a magazine that said, “Philosophy is to life as masturbation is to sex.”  The implication is that philosophy can be fun, but compared to the reality of life it’s somewhat empty and hollow.  For Mr. Zimit, everything is either pass or fail, “Fly or die” as he says.  He finds logic to be “the best way to get through the day.”  James objects to this, saying that people do ok without philosophy and logic, but Zimit asks if all he wants is just to do “ok” in life.  However, throughout the film other students object to Zimit’s insistence on logic in life.  Georgina criticizes him for being a slave to binary logic, to black and white and ones and zeroes.  She reminds the others not to be fooled by the arithmetic, and even tells Zimit that “your logic reeks of bullshit” after the second iteration.  She goes so far as to compare his experiment to eugenics and something the Nazis would have come up with.  Even the other students point out the inconsistencies in the application of his experiment.

It’s clear throughout the film that while the students learned a lot from their class, and generally enjoyed it, they collectively feel like life is more rich and varied than philosophy allows for.  The entire third iteration seems to me to be a way for the students to rebel against the premise that the logic they learned in the class could or should dictate how they live their lives.  They have no place for logic when it values one person more than another, as in Petra’s third iteration everyone is worth as much as everyone else.  Logic makes no allowance for art or culture, for love or ethics and morality or any of the things that they feel make life worth living.  If all you’re interested in is the utilitarian outlook on life then you’re missing out on your life.  Masturbation and sex may both end in an orgasm, but the experience of each is wildly different.

However, it’s also clear that the students learned a lot in their year in philosophy class, and that it challenged their thinking in positive ways.  They all had favorite philosophical exercises that they name, and they’re all capable of performing the thought experiment.  But beyond that they’re curious, questioning and rebellious, not content merely to accept what their teacher dishes out to them but willing to challenge it.  They’re eager to apply the things they learn to their lives, but aren’t interested in being tied down by inconsistent and arbitrary rules.  They’d probably agree with Spock in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when he said “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”  Or, as one student points out, “Sometimes you want to have a wank and a shag on the same day.”

I think this aspect of the film has been the most frustrating and infuriating for some people.  And, in their defense, perhaps the film was presented in a way that built up a certain expectation that lead to some disappointment.  After the Dark is not really a film about a philosophical thought experiment at all, although it contains one.  It’s not really a movie about a teacher proposing a situation where the students must decide who lives and dies during an apocalypse and then letting the audience see how that plays out.  In fact, After the Dark is about what role experiments like this, and philosophy in general, have in our lives.  It’s about how much philosophy can teach us and how much it can’t.  And as such, it’s a far more interesting movie than it otherwise would have been if it were just about the experiment and its outcome, just as life is far more interesting than just philosophy, and sex is far more interesting than just taking care of things by yourself.

40 thoughts on “Review/Analysis: After the Dark (aka The Philosophers)

  1. Neat insights into a film I likely won’t get a chance to see! (yeah, York County, hah hah)…

    Sort of a reversal of the usual sci-fi/fantasy trope of “oh, guess what, it was only a dream”… that trope is one that should be avoided like the Plague and other cliches, as any “dream frame” destroys the power of the faerie tale. (JRR Tolkien once said something about applicability vs allegory, he hated allegory… just telling the tale and having the audience apply it to their experience works far better).

    In this case we know “it’s only a dream”, or a thought experiment, or a philosophy class exercise, at the beginning… and it sounds as if it works beautifully.

    The filmakers might have stayed in Reality, the reality of the classroom, and had the students philosophize about their choices… but it seems as if jumping into the Imagination, into the Reality of the Experiment, of the Story, has more impact.

    Neatly done. Perhaps with the internet and the DVD we might get more releases like this that aren’t huge commercial blockbusters, but are well told stories worth experiencing.

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    • I generally don’t check out movies that go straight to on-demand or DVD, because I usually interpret it as a lack of confidence in the film, but I’d been looking forward to this one for so long that I couldn’t pass it up. I was so happy that it lived up to my expectations and more, and now I’m wondering what else I missed just because I was prejudiced because it didn’t make it into theaters. I definitely recommend checking out After the Dark if you can find it on DVD or streaming somewhere, it’s a unique film.
      I also hate the “It was only a dream” trope, with a few notable exceptions, but it’s definitely an interesting experience in this case watching events unfold that we know aren’t “real” and are just hypothetical. It allows immediate commentary on the events from the participants but from the view of outside observers, which is a different tone than I’ve seen before. It would be fourth-wall breaking in a normal movie but given the setup it works really well to provide context and commentary.
      I love that Tolkien hated allegory, though I suspect he got tired of being asked if LOTR was a World War I allegory. I agree with him that it’s more important that people are able to find a way to make a film/book/tv show applicable to themselves rather than it intentionally representing something that may not mean anything to them. There are some situations where allegory is important and useful, but I think applicability is much more important in most cases.
      As always, thanks for the thoughts, the insights, the commentary and of course thanks for being awesome! It’s always a joy to hear from you 🙂

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  3. Hi, I just watched to movie I thought it was good, but what you said about several characters being gay – there were actually only two Jack and Parker who came out towards the end of the film.

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  4. from a psych .. point of view i can point the below points i like and most of the viewers probably missed :
    1- the teacher was over reacting to the last scene , which was a bit odd for a teacher that his whole point is to be reasonable .
    2- at the end of the film , it was a bit clear that the purpose of the whole experiment was to show Petra , that she should always think rational , and not leave to far university and stay with him , and Petra showed him and irrational decision will prevail to some point .
    3- the teacher ended up taking the extreme irrational move and shot himself . showing a message to all those who think a bit more about the purpose of the idea.
    4- the third experiment did not have bombs ( they never came ) . rendering the experiment significance at question and might push us to think more ( if we wait we might die in a bomb , if we don’t we might do it all in vain)

    these are just small things i noticed hope someone else did too 🙂

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  5. Really enjoyed your blog and break down of the film. It enhanced my post-film musings quite a bit. I agree that because this wasn’t truly about the Hollywood concept of “who gets to live and who dies” it didn’t get a fair shake.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed both the movie and my analysis. I totally agree that it didn’t get a fair shake, and I blame a lot of that on the marketing. It was sold as a “thriller” but I just think the studio didn’t know what to do with it. It’s a shame, but I’m glad the film seems to be getting some attention (this is the most popular article I’ve ever written for my blog).

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  6. I must say, I really enjoyed this film more than I expected. I love your analysis, and find it spot on. However, I was a bit disappointed that you left out Chips in the Analysis. I feel that at the end, his insight was by far the most enlightening piece of the movie. I love “Zimit’s focus is all on the final outcome while Petra’s is on the journey.”, but Chips says, “in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” When I took my first entry level Philosiphy course last year, I realized that the only thing I can ever know logically is that somehow on some level, I exist. You just can never know much else, and I feel that Chips risk was just in the way it turned out. Whereas with Zimit, he has his head wrapped around solving everything logically, and he is so clouded by this that he cannot see he is trapped inside the limits of logic and philosophy. It’s the reason for his unwillingness to let go, and this shows in his relations with Petra, his inability to see the good in James, and his being stubborn and living in a cave for a whole year instead of accepting fate for what it is. Ultimately, I must say this was a good film for me, and thank you for posting this article. It gave me a spot to tell a few how I think, thanks 🙂

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s funny you brought up Chips, because I could have sworn I wrote about him, but after your comment I went back and was surprised I left him out! Chips’ thought experiment at the end is not only one of the best parts of the film, but perfectly sums up both the class’s fascination with philosophy (as taught by Zimit) and their frustration with it. I think you’re spot on in your comment and in calling me out for forgetting about him. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. I’m glad that people are discovering and enjoying this film, in spite of the variety of things stacked up against it. 🙂

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    • As I said in my analysis, the film presents three possible endings, one of which (the one with the gunshot) has him killing himself. It’s left open to interpretation as to which ending you think is the more likely. Think of it in the vein of “The Lady or the Tiger,” which doesn’t explicitly state the ending, leaving it up to the readers to consider and debate which outcome is most likely.

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  7. Ok so what is this movie really about? what threw me off was the relationship between Petra and the teacher, why was that included? It somewhat made me feel as if it were a drama. I enjoyed it nonetheless, it’s just the ending really didn’t stick with me.

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    • I suppose that depends on what you mean by “about.” As far as the plot of the story is concerned, it’s about a teacher who had an affair with a student, who then becomes jealous when she leaves him for a relationship with another student. He uses the last day of his philosophy class in an attempt to convince her to pick him, the “logical” choice, and not be deceived by the surface charms of his rival. In the end, she fights back against his arguments in favor of logic, showing him that there’s more to life (and love) than the logical choice.
      But that’s just the plot. As for the movie’s themes, it’s about both the merits and the limits of philosophy and logic. It’s about how we twist things in order to suit our situation, and try to convince ourselves that we’re being impartial. That impartiality doesn’t actually exist, and that a 100% cold and logical analysis of something is impossible because of the human condition. It’s about the choices we have of the guiding forces in our lives, and how we choose to apply those forces, and whether we learn from what’s come behind or pretend that it never happened.
      And it’s also about 20 people forced to determine who lives and dies in an apocalypse.
      A lot of people have been thrown off or unimpressed with the ending, but if you’re still intrigued by the film I’d suggest rewatching it now that you know how it ends, and looking at it from the point of view of the struggle between Zimit and Petra over how she lives her life. It colors everything that comes before the final revelation of their relationship, and in many ways makes you feel sorry for Zimit and his narrow point of view.
      Hope that helped, and thanks for reading and commenting!

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  8. I loved this film, and I LOVED your interpretation of it, thank you. I just posted a review on Netflix (a huge rarity for me, but I felt it important) that independently came to pretty much the same conclusions. I completely agree that you almost need to see this movie twice, as your preconceptions of what the story is and what the story is supposed to be come to a full halt, then reverse in the last scenes. If you don’t spend some time to ponder it out, it doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps that’s a fault in the storytelling, though, I’m not sure. Essentially the Petra/Zimit relationship bookends and explains the internal stories, but the viewer is never informed of this framework until the very end end, at which point, you either re-watch various scenes to grasp it, or head to the Internet to read excellent interpretations like yours, or both! Either way, I’m not sure that’s fair to the viewer, when even the merest indication of Zimit’s interest in Petra at the beginning of the film might have alerted the careful that all was not what it seemed, and to pay closer attention to nuances of plot and action. Regardless, my personal opinion is that this is one of the most interesting films I’ve seen in quite a while — lushly designed (those sets, I want to stay there!) majestically filmed, well acted, and for once full of something more than bangs, booms and eye-candy (though it has that too.) And yes, I agree: had the original title been retained, it might have gone a long way to managing expectations for the film. It’s a shame that so many reviewers entirely miss the point.

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  11. I just saw this movie recently and wanted to say great analysis. I also was caught up in the negative comments for the movie at first, but there was still something in this film that seemed deeper than what some people were seeing. I still think there were a few flaws in the story (how would Bonnie know the code in the third iteration?) but overall it was an interesting story. I enjoyed the theorizing and deeper connotations of the film, and I appreciate you bringing them up to assure that there is a good reason why I liked it.

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    • I’m so glad you got to see it and you enjoyed it! I think a lot of people didn’t give it a fair chance, or went into it expecting to dislike it for some reason. I chalk the Bonnie thing up to the students playing fast and loose with the rules since Mr. Zimit played fast and loose with the rules up to that point, trying to make a point that his game was arbitrary. I love that it’s a deeper, more interesting movie than we normally see, and I’m happy that you liked it and that you came back here to tell me!

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    • Thanks Lindsay. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie; I have introduced it to a number of people who enjoyed it as well. The Bonnie biz is actually explained in the film: she was given the quality of eidetic memory as one of her traits, as well as being a soldier. The word “eidetic” is rare, and she says it really quickly, but in essence people with eidetic memories can remember complex images, text or numbers after only a brief exposure. In the second role-play, she is standing next to Zimit and the camera shows her watching him punch in the code before they are all killed, so on the third iteration, she knows the code. Tricky huh? This is illustrative of just how complex this movie plot is, and, perhaps, the danger of making a movie plot this complicated!

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      • I think Lindsay’s point was that Bonnie shouldn’t be able to remember the code because technically she died in the second iteration, and the experiment makes no sense if they can remember things from previous iterations that they didn’t survive. The Bonnie of the third iteration never lived through the second iteration so therefore couldn’t logically (within the rules of the game) know the code. Of course, the students have been through all the iterations external to the experiment.

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  14. After watching the movie I felt a bit confused about some plot twists, but this blog surely cleared a lot of things. Thank you for that.

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  15. There is a misconception here that I think is being overlooked. “Masturbation and sex may both end in an orgasm, but the experience of each is wildly different.” I understand the concept and the potential analogy that is trying to be made but I don’t think it applies here. Here is what I mean, the end result of masturbation/ sex is said to be an orgasm but the means to get to the end result varies. In the movie however, the end result was not the same for the point the professor was trying to make vs. the students. The professor clearly stated that the priority is to repopulate humans and believed that through eugenics, the population would be better off and progression of mankind would be swift/ successful. The students on the other hand did not have repopulation as the prime objective and therefore the end result cannot be the same as they “welcomed death” and all perished. If the both parties were trying to achieve the end result and one party was more happy through the journey than the other, there would be no argument as to which path is better to take, the logical or fulfillment in life path. But this was not the case, as both parties had different ideas of an “end” and thus that analogy doesn’t apply here. I think the movie had potential but I also think that each party (the professor & the students) had their own extreme way of viewing reality. The answer lies in between the two where logic is a rational and perhaps the best explanation to living everyday life but human emotions will have to be considered when making decisions. As the professor said it best, human being have a design flaw, we believe what we feel rather than what it is…

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  17. actually , the ending , i did not understand very well
    who killed finally ?
    thanks for the analysis it was exciting
    and what he meant when he asked her about the meaning of “abukalebs “

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  20. Thanks for your thorough analysis of this. I enjoyed the movie very much, and most of the reason why is because I’ve been through the process of trusting philosophy, or rationality too much. In the end, rationality is necessary, but no more necessary than feeling. Neither of them make any sense without the other. So, the movie proved a good point in a very enterntaining way. And you summed it up well. Thank you

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  21. I Watched this movie twice. I am amature student of Philosophy. Can you please tell me how this movie is related with Philosophy ?

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  22. Great review.. I loved this movie. I watched it like a hundred times, especially when I feel stressed.
    A philosophical imagination is a gateway to stress and boredom. The possibilities in every decision and the thoughts that shadowed our emotion. Philosophy is raw.

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