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Imagine, for a moment, how completely ineffectual Halloween (1978) would be if the whole film ended up as Laurie Strode’s dream. It would certainly explain some of the film’s more fantastic bits (that Michael is a surprisingly resilient fella) but it would also serve as one massive disappointment at the end, similar to that whole “snow-globe” finale for St. Elsewhere. A revelation like this would deflate any tension the movie managed to build up, while also giving the easy-out of allowing any of the formerly disposed of characters to just pop back up, smiling, like nothing ever happened. It would feel like a cop-out, in some ways, as if the stakes that were previously so high had instantly been reduced to mush. Sure, there may still be tension during the initial viewing but how many people would return to the film time and again if they knew the whole thing was completely illusory? Fool us once and all that jazz. Now…suppose that we’re told the whole film is merely a dream within the first few minutes? Where, then, do our stakes go?

I’m guessing it would end up pretty similar to writer-director John Huddles’ fairly pedestrian After the Dark (2013), also known as The Philosophers (a much more on-the-nose title). Within fairly short order, we’re introduced to an international high school philosophy class, in Jakarta, led by the rather odious Mr. Zimit (James D’Arcy). It’s the final day of class for these seniors and Zimit wants to work up a little experiment to really get their teenage brains thinking: he proposes an end-of-the-world scenario where the 21 people in the room (including himself) must decide which ten of them would be allowed to stay in the fall-out shelter. This, of course, will give everyone a chance to debate the needs of the many vs the few, the necessity of certain professions in a doomsday scenario, etc etc. It will also give the filmmakers a chance to portray this end-of-the-world scenario in as safe a way as possible: after all, we’ve already been told up-front that this is all just a thought-experiment. Anyone who “dies” in the experiment will just have to suffer the trauma of sitting everything out, without all of that messy stuff like, you know…really dying. It’s a “duck-duck-goose” approach to drama and ends up carrying just as much emotional heft, in the long run.

We’re run through several different scenarios, each one guided by Zimit as he attempts to make whatever point he (ultimately) wants to make. For all intents and purposes, his various machinations seem aimed squarely at James (Rhys Wakefield), the working class boyfriend of Zimit’s star pupil, Petra (Sophie Lowe). Time and time again, Zimit seems to do everything he can to marginalize and piss off James, from ensuring that he “randomly” selects the profession/character trait that Zimit has picked out for him to constantly calling into question James’ place in the class. This, of course, has the tendency to tick off Petra and the others (once it’s revealed) but there appears to be a method to Zimit’s madness. Is he really just trying to broaden their horizons and get them to think outside the box or does he have a more sinister, ulterior motive? At the end of the day, it really won’t matter because, like Vegas, what happens in the scenarios stays in the scenarios.

Here’s the thing: once we’re told, up front, that all of the meat of the film will consist of fantasy sequences, with no actual bearing on the “real world,” it’s impossible to stay invested in what’s happening. Zimit “shoots” students, “banishes” people into a nuclear holocaust,” attempts to “engineer” relationships, “attacks” students, acts like an ass…but it’s all just a pretense, a tissue paper-thin gimmick and certainly not the load-bearing support that can prop up a film. This is not to say that the fantasy sequences, themselves, don’t present some small measure of interest: on their own, they ask some reasonable questions about the lengths folks will go to in order to survive, as well as all the things they won’t do. There’s plenty of mildly thought-provoking discussions about the importance of “practical skill vs artistic ones” as far as rebuilding a destroyed civilization goes but the whole thing is strictly surface-level and academic: this isn’t a tense drama so much as a filmed Philosophy 101 lecture. In fact, one of the most engaging segments in the film is actually the bit where we see depictions of various philosophical concepts: it’s still surface-level stuff but at least we’re learning a little something.

Aside from the unfortunate “fantasy” angle, After the Dark ends up being a thoroughly middle-of-the-road film. D’Arcy’s Zimit is ridiculous character, the kind of high school teacher that could only exist in a film like this. He has a “big” secret, of course, but it ends up being a pretty silly one (which leads to one of the film’s most ludicrously melodramatic scenes, which is saying a lot). Wakefield, as demonstrated in Sanctum (2011), is a serviceable but thoroughly uninteresting actor, although his tendency to emote does allow him to offer up one of the film’s biggest headslappers: “Just because I don’t want to sleep with you anymore doesn’t mean I don’t still love you!” You tell ’em, big guy! Lowe does fine with her role as the “voice of reason” who tackles Zimit head-on but her character pretty much devolves into a mouthpiece for “artists over plumbers” by the film’s final third, hammering home her talking points so often that it feels like we’re the mirror she’s practicing to before the big debate. Everyone else in the cast falls somewhere between these extremes, although no one approaches the sheer obnoxiousness of D’Arcy’s performance.

For the most part, the film looks pretty good, although Huddles has a tendency to film all of the romantic scenes between James and Petra in as clichéd a way as possible, all languid camera movements, indie rock and amber lighting: when compared to the rest of the film, these bits stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Equally awkward are various moments in the film that seemed destined to jolt the audience, such as the decidedly ooky scene where everyone pairs off and gets to the business of baby-making. We never get anything more than some vague suggestions but the pairing of Petra with Mr. Zimit certainly has some queasy undertones. There are also some odd tonal disparities, like the bit where one character jovially explains his desire to be exiled with the other group as wanting to have the exiled women all to himself. Fuck altruism: this guy has the right idea, eh?

By turns overly self-serious and ridiculously over-the-top, After the Dark ends up being a bit of a non-entity. Minus the gimmick of the fantasy scenarios, the film would still be rough but it would, at least, have some genuine stakes to sweat over. As it stands, however, nothing that happens is real, so why should we really care who lives or dies? By the time we get to the point where Petra gets to choose all of the “survivors” and picks all of the people who Zimit repeatedly tossed out, such as the poet, musician and “Ebola-infected doctor” (yes, really), the film’s aims are pretty clear. Zimit warns Petra that she hasn’t chosen people with actual survival skills: her group won’t last long in his decimated vision of the future. We won’t live long, she counters, but we’ll live well. That’s the apex of the film’s philosophy and to that, I merely shrug: good for you, Petra, but I’ll be over here, hanging out with the kids who can start a fire and find food.