The teen movie After The Dark makes for limp drama, yet it’s far too strange to dismiss out of hand. A chronicle of a high-school philosophy class undergoing an end-of-society “thought experiment,” the film invokes Lord Of The Flies, Tarsem Singh’s 2009 epic The Fall, and those Time-Life videos substitute teachers pop into classroom players to quell student uprisings. It bubbles with pent-up sexuality, and criss-crosses its own thematic and logical wires so often that at times, it ceases to make any sense at all. Yet through all the ham-fisted lunacy, writer-director John Huddles displays an infectious love of philosophy, coupled with an exhilarating, anything-goes filmmaking style.
It’s the last day of school for this class of 21, and the students are so improbably well-behaved, they pass the time by conjuring up their favorite moral dilemmas from the semester. “The Infinite Monkey Theorem,” one kid says, and suddenly there’s a chimp banging out Shakespeare on a typewriter, while the stars and heavens swirl around him. “The Train Problem,” another offers, and then a locomotive is barreling toward innocent people in a vast, barren desert, with a lever nearby to activate a classic ethical quandary: Do nothing, or redirect the train to kill two people instead of five?
But then the teacher has them envision a nuclear apocalypse, which is sort of like playing the Helen Keller card in Apples To Apples: It trumps everything else, whether it’s deployed intelligently or not. Though these 21 students are still nestled safely within their high-walled school, they must choose the 10 best among them to wait out a hypothetical cataclysm in a hypothetical bunker, sort of a Survivor for the smart set. The teacher assigns them each professions—carpenter, organic farmer, poet—and makes them decide who would prove the most instrumental in rebuilding society. He later instructs them to reproduce, then makes himself a potential partner. The theoretical survival of the human race cares not for flagrant breaches of teacher-student conduct, it seems, and certainly not with a class so physically attractive that everyone could have a side career as a fashion model.
Mr. Zimit, the teacher, is played by James D’Arcy as psychotic and predatory, a far cry from the Dead Poets Society strain of conventional-unconventional educators. He is, it seems, a manifestation of the raw rational calculus necessary for survival in extreme circumstances—every zombie movie has one of him. As might be expected from a cast this large, few of the students have room to develop their own personalities, though Mr. Zimit takes particular interest in derailing the affections of saintly genius Petra (Sophie Lowe) and rebellious blonde hunk James (Rhys Wakefield). It’s too bad all the kids are so quiet and grim. What’s a philosophy class without some lively, combative Socratic dialogue?
Like the twin worlds the characters occupy, After The Dark carries two identities at once. It’s both a visually arresting stew of moral dilemmas and a completely ludicrous, sometimes interminable pile of nonsense, and not just because the students vote to save the girl who draws the card labeling her as a U.S. senator. (Seriously, no one would do this.) Even though the apocalypse setting exists only within the students’ minds, they engage in secret dalliances and pivotal battles within the fantasy space, while sitting in the same classroom facing each other. The predominantly white cast is attending school in Jakarta, but the reason for this distinctive setting is never explained; moments hint at the isolating nature of white privilege without ever developing the idea. And the film boasts one of the most misguided, unnecessary, please-for-the-love-of-God-just-cut-to-black final sequences in recent memory. After The Dark never ceases to be fascinating, but is it any good? The jury is out till the end of the world.