After the Dark Movie Review: This is What “Trying Too Hard” Looks Like

I feel like I was just lied to. The pitch for After the Dark started with, “Faced with an impending nuclear apocalypse, a group of twenty college students must determine which ten of them would take shelter underground and reboot the human race” when in reality it should have read “Faced with the last day of high school, a group of seniors enter a bad episode of Dawson’s Creek masquerading as a philosophy class.” This film is the very definition of decent idea but flawed execution. Bear in mind there are going to be spoilers below because I’d rather save you the hour and forty-six minutes it takes to watch this contrived mess.

The opening frame makes it pretty clear that lead characters Petra (Sophie Lowe) and James (Rhys Wakefield) just finished doing the deed, and she soon scurries out the door. James ill-advisedly goes back to sleep and is almost late for his last day of philosophy class at a high school in Jakarta, Indonesia. There are no parents around, and everyone appears to be in their 20s, so aside from one kid making a comment about how the last day of senior year is supposed to be easy, I would have figured them all for college (and the synopsis promoted for the movie also said they were in college, so, there’s that). One of the major devices used against the students several times throughout the story is that this one guy can apparently tank their grades so hard for not participating on the last day that they will never get into college.

The task set before them by their instructor Mr. Zimit (James D’Arcy) isn’t specifically a philosophical one. It’s to assume that an apocalyptic worldwide nuclear war is about to occur, and of the 21 people in the room, they have to decide which 10 should be allowed to seek shelter in a fallout bunker for a year and take the charge of repopulating the Earth. The movie then shifts from being a classroom exercise to some sort of collective hallucination of what’s actually going on, which really works against the film by trying to make it more exciting than it has any right to be. Zimit starts blowing away students with a pistol and the others come running, leading to a tense discussion about how he should be dealt with, misdirection, etc., and then on to Zimit dramatically sprinting across some temple ruins to the bunker, only to find out the remaining students have locked Zimit outside. In reality, this was all a calm conversation in a classroom, nobody dies, none of this is real, and the drama is completely false and manufactured. It really would have worked better to start here, have them make their choices, play out the exercise, then at the end maybe reveal that it’s all been just a make-believe exercise. Problem is, this has to happen two more times.

After the first half hour, based on the students’ decision to exclude Zimit from the sanctuary — completely negating the ups and downs of who else they chose to take inside — everything goes downhill really fast. This is the recurring problem, as in the second scenario, Zimit continues making arbitrary rules that only serve his incredibly limited and unidirectional view of how things should go. There’s nothing philosophical going on here — he’s a dick with an agenda, and he’s just making his students feel bad, not pushing them to think more broadly about their choices. The idea of introducing a negative characteristic for every person to go with each positive makes the decision process more complicated, and I enjoyed that. For example, a character might be assigned the role of a carpenter or architect or structural engineer, which would be incredibly useful in the sense of rebuilding the world, but then they might also be gay, sterile, or have potentially contracted a deadly and contagious illness, which work against the goals of reproduction and safety within the shelter. However, it goes down the same rabbit hole where Zimit wants what Zimit wants, and everyone else be damned.

The third time out, the students rebel and opt to have an aesthetically pleasing final year on Earth and ignore the rebuild/repopulate agenda, presuming that maybe humanity doesn’t deserve to live on, but Zimit again shows up to tell them “NO, YOU’RE WRONG!!!” which is not how philosophy works. He was operating on what appeared to be a purely socio-economic and survival level, disregarding and disrespecting any other view that came within range. He’s a terrible teacher in this regard, even though Petra straight up tells him otherwise shortly before the end.

And that’s when things get really cringe-worthy. Lo and behold, Petra and Zimit used to be in a relationship, but she’s moved on to be with James, who Zimit doesn’t think is worthy of her. Alas, this entire day’s series of activities was designed to make it clear to Petra what a loser James is in Zimit’s eyes, even though they both know Petra and Zimit can’t be together (or at least that’s what they tell the audience). I couldn’t make heads or tails of why that unnecessary subplot was shoved in. It would have worked fine as typical thought experiment without the nauseatingly confusing love story bolted on. After the students all leave, three different possible endings for Zimit present themselves. Apparently the only options for him for summer vacation consist of eating a sandwich, eating a bullet, or pining hopelessly for a girl who’s barely old enough to drive.

I did thought experiments like this in classes in middle school. They were all stimulating and thought-provoking and mind-expanding even without scandalous love triangles and SyFy Channel caliber special effects, if you can believe it. The idea of capturing a thought experiment or people trying to solve a complex riddle on film can be done well, as seen in films like Exam. In After the Dark, though, what could have been a twisting and turning mental exercise turns into 106 minutes of trying too hard to inject action and drama where it doesn’t belong.

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Mark Buckingham

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