After The Dark
I cannot claim to be, in any way, a decent philosophy student. A module of Plato in college is the sum total of my direct experience with the subject academically, and I was never very good at that, only vaguely remembering slapdash understandings of republics, caves and other thought experiment bric-a-brac. I feel it is true, what a character says in this film: “Philosophy is to real life what masturbation is to sex”. But I was intrigued by the premise of this film, watched via Netflix, and the questions that it posited towards an audience. I think, in an era of never-ending blockbusters and apocalyptic depictions, a film claiming to focus purely on the philosophical consequences of the “end of the world” is positively unique.
A class of philosophy students at an international school in Jakarta undergo their final lesson from their somewhat aloof and pretentious teacher (James D’Arcy), who focuses particularly on his best student Petra (Sophie Lowe) and her underachieving boyfriend James (Rhys Wakefield). Through a detailed role-playing exercise, the class work through a nuclear apocalypse three times over, deciding which of their number gets to live or die and seeing what the consequences are of their hypothetical actions.
After The Dark is an interesting film, one that does succeed, in my view, at making the viewer ponder questions of worth, rationality and consequence in such an extreme scenario. But the truly interesting thing isn’t so much that (though it is fascinating in its approach) but the way in which the entire thing is framed. After The Dark, in three segments, leads us through a pageantry of the mind and asks our trust and understanding to make this doubly fictional depiction of the end times effective.
It does this largely through an unholy trinity at the heart of the film, between teacher Zemit, Petra and James. The film opens with Petra and James in bed together, and moves forward in showing their relationship through increasingly fantastical scenarios and in relation to the frequently Machiavellian actions of their philosophy teacher, whose ulterior motives will keep viewers guessing until a somewhat surprising twist ending regarding him.
D’Arcy’s Zemit is the driving force of much of the narrative, providing both the voice of a narrator for the opening iteration of the apocalyptic scenario and the self-stated voice of the “wild card”, a random option amid the humdrum personalities that are impressed upon the class before him. The thought experiment is obviously stacked against the players from the start, but part of what made After The Dark so endearing to me was this look at a somewhat demented leader figure exulting in a role that placed him at the centre of a twisted experiment, albeit a twisted experiment that had none of the tangible aspects it so vividly described.
The iteration’s play out, as the students try to find a way to beat the game, with Petra getting ever closer to finding out the real answer even as things get more and more warped in the mind of Zemit. The students explore the idea of approaching the problem of survivor selection through purely survivalist thinking, then pure rationality and then through the pursuit of maximum happiness. The choices illustrate some fundamental things about human nature, even if the philosophical reasoning behind some of them is as clear and sledgehammer like as they could possibly be. After The Dark is the kind of film that talks a good game when it comes to philosophical musings, especially in regards things like the “Trolley problem” and how they relate to real world applications of morality, but I found that this aspect of the film was decidedly shallow by the conclusion – After The Dark works better when it focuses on the relationship between Zemit, Petra and James, and how it evolves and changes through the darkly toned thought experiment that it must adapt too. The changing nature of friendships, sexual encounters real and imagined plus the idea of living under a drawn out web of fear are all aspects of the scenario that Petra and James must deal with in the carefully orchestrated fantasy world of Zemit, and I feel that After The Dark was a better film when it decided that those things were more worthy of its attention than how the larger group got on in the same concocted space.
There are some deeper problems though. The sense of unreality starts stronge and never stops growing. Members of the class take what is essentially a complicated role-playing exercise remarkably seriously, to the extent that recriminations spill out into the “real world”, something that doesn’t really strike me as plausible for the kind of characters these students are supposed to be. And then there is the narration problems. After The Dark‘s thought experiments are framed as a narrated exercise by Zemit in the first and second instance, but then Petra takes over. Both provide specific details and alter things to suit themselves, and the whole thing feels exceedingly strange, especially as we near the end. In fact, so strange is it that After The Dark practically pokes fun at itself, taking the opportunity to introduce a new narrator for a ribald thought experiment just before the seriousness of the last few minutes.
James D’Arcy is an under-rated actor who has largely failed to find really big roles (does W.E. count? Probably not). It’s a shame, because performances like this show that he is well capable of more. Zemit is manipulative, suspicious, untrustworthy and just very creepy throughout, and D’Arcy provides all of this very simply, rarely raising his voice that high. It’s all in low tones and hard syllables, looks in the eye and aggressive demeanours. He’s matched by Sophie Lowe as Petra, similarly soft spoken but managing to imbue a great deal in everything that she says, portraying a young woman who rises above the petty challenge presented before her. Wakefield has less to do really, but still effectively portrays the only (main) character who seems to not take the entire thing that seriously, with plenty of actual charm to justify the interest Petra shows in him. There is a varied supporting cast – Harry Potter’s Bonnie Wright is probably the most well known – that do fine without ever really attracting sustained interest in their performances or actions.
After The Dark splits its time between the interior of a nicely furnished classroom, the modified exterior shots of Indonesia and the bunker where the thought experiment takes place. And while nothing is too spectacular, the HD camera work gives everything a very nice, crisp look, that foreign yet relatable sense that can only come from a place like Jakarta. Sure, After The Dark might feel like an Indonesian tourism film at some points, but when the countryside looks this good, why not use it?
After The Dark is more impressive with its script, and I suppose that this is a good thing since, given the lack of different scenes and the slightly forced “action”, it needs to be a film when the talking carries most things. It helps make Zemit, Petra and James the characters that they are, and introduces a good amount of “banter” between the members of the class. I use that term somewhat reluctantly, since I don’t really like it very much, but it is a as good a single word to describe the “inconsequential to the narrative but important for low-level characterisation and bond building” kind of back and forth. After The Dark excels at that. And it excels at a beginners guide to philosophy as well, not having the time or the inclination to get into true detail, but quickly and accessibly giving the audience the run down on the basics of what the film is going to revolve around, to the extent that I feel that even the most underprepared layman could grasp what After The Dark is all about. But if claiming to be more than that, to try and justify its original title of “The Philosophers“, After The Dark is badly mistaken.
Musically, After The Dark is very simple, probably because the production was relatively low budget. But it has some things to note, especially a very simple throbbing guitar beat that repeats and resonates whenever it is played, usually at a moment of decision in the thought experiment world. With plenty of contemporary instruments to compliment the surrounds, After The Dark is a good example of how a good and effective score can be made on the cheap.
After The Dark, seemingly, won’t make much of an impression on the film landscape, which is, I feel to be regretted. There is an interesting idea in this production, one that manages to both deal with the apocalyptic in a new way and regale the audience with a malformed three-way story between a twisted teacher and two of his students. It’s good on a visual, script and aural level too, but suffers in other areas, like narration consistency and a certain shallowness in the nominal main point (that is, the philosophy in the film itself). After The Dark isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but is not a bad effort either, a decent two hours entertainment that should leave a positive impression to the open mind. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Phase 4 Films and All Media Company).