In grade 10, my English teacher decided to teach us George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by transforming his class into Oceania for a week. We would have to adhere to the rules of Big Brother, talk in doublespeak and newspeak, and report to the Ministry of Truth every time we spoke out of turn. I was a decent student, but I was always committing thoughtcrimes, not because I necessarily wanted to play along or because I didn’t like or understand the novel, but because I found the whole experiment relentlessly douchy and pandering. I really just didn’t want to be there getting tricked and had by someone so desperately trying to ape Orwell that you could see the flop sweat under his armpits.
Fast forward roughly 18 years later as I sit down to watch what would become one of the worst films I will have ever sat through in my life, the jaw droppingly stupid, wildly illogical, and painfully asinine After the Dark, a film that takes place entirely in a classroom and thinks that it’s somehow intellectually screwing with the head of the audience. Almost immediately my experiences in high school didn’t seem so bad in comparison. In fact, by the end of John Huddles baffling incoherent and inconsistent thing that can barely be called a film, I was transported to a very different and far more cinematic classroom in my mind:
“Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
That chestnut was from the 1995 Adam Sandler comedy Billy Madison, a film that’s astoundingly and not even hyperbolically ten billion times smarter than this claptrap that tries to rest on dime store philosophy to cover up for the fact that it has no stakes, reason to exist, or a single intriguing idea to offer to the world. It’s worse than the worst of all thoughtless megabudget blockbusters precisely because this work quite stupidly is inviting people to think about and engage with the subject at hand. It’s outclassed every step of the way in one of the most stunning miscalculations of intellectual ability possible.
It’s the last day of school at a posh and exotic looking collegiate in Jakarta, Indonesia that doesn’t have a single Indonesian student, but it does have a whole bunch of white people of different backgrounds and a small handful of token ethnicities. Apparently the only class these students have, or that they have left, is the philosophy class led by Mr. Zimit (James D’Arcy, who can rest safely knowing his career cannot possibly dip any lower than this point). Instead of allowing his class to pack it in and stop thinking about heady issues, he posits a thought experiment on the class. It’s the apocalypse and the class of 21 students has to whittle itself down to ten to survive in an underground bunker and hopefully repopulate the universe. Each student will be decided by their worth – a profession or skill written down on a slip of paper drawn at random – to see if they make it into the bunker. The brash and downright psychotic teacher is himself a wild card that the students need to decide upon. Then they have to play out the scenario.
Where in the holy name of fuck do I even begin? First and foremost, Huddles can show recreations of this scenario set to whatever amount of heavy handed musical cues he wants. When he pulls back every few seconds to remind the audience that this is a class that’s only dealing in hypothetical situations, he’s constantly reminding them that there are absolutely NO stakes to anything we see being played out on screen. NONE. NADA. ZIP. NIL. FUCKING ZILCH. Why must we sit through tangential scenes where the kids are in the bunker trying to hook up, or watching them eat, or trying to escape? All of the drama in the film is padding. The only actual drama comes in the form of D’Arcy’s WORST TEACHER EVER threatening the class’ only A+ student (a positively somnambulant Sophie Lowe) that her BOYFRIEND’S mark will go down if she dare leave the class. There aren’t any real bombs going off and there’s no way to logically explain how these scenes in the bunker are even being talked about within the class. It’s nothing but a complete waste of time and energy.
Second, it’s clear immediately that Zmidt isn’t playing fair and bending the rules to chronically assert his moral superiority over his students, meaning it comes up with outlandish twists within the thought experiments that will have no bearing on the actual reality within the classroom until about the halfway point when Huddles starts hinting at a major plot twist that’s downright sleazier than the psychological torture he’s putting these teens through. And even then, everyone in the film is too stupid to catch onto something painfully obvious to the audience. And to even explain away his “shock” moments, Huddles actually has the balls to stage FLASHBACKS within thought experiments. He’s staging flashbacks within something that never existed. It makes Inception look like the work of a Nobel laureate.
It might at least have come up with something more fascinating that standard “What is the measure of a man?” line of questioning. Even then, all of that is negated by the fact that Zmidt never follows a clear set of rules and that there isn’t a damned thing stopping these kids from simply walking out of the class. They are all seniors. They can still complain that their teacher has lost it. He’s literally forcing them to do things that will get him fired and he’s keeping at least one person there under duress. Half the class isn’t even doing anything. Do they have other classes? Why is this class taking so damn long? Who the hell are any of these people REALLY? These kids don’t even stop the somehow even crazier Zmidt in the actual experiment. Instead, they just willingly let him kill them. After only 20 minutes this feels like playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons that’s being run by a complete psychopath. That’s the only word that can adequately describe this film: psychopathic.
And as if that isn’t punishing enough, the film completely resets after 40 minutes to start the experiment anew after they all DIE in the first experiment. That means we have to sit through another lengthy sequence where every. single. member. of. the. class. is voted on to determine their worth. Again, I don’t care because you keep reminding me that nothing I am seeing is real. I don’t care how close the bombs are dropping near you. None of this is real. This movie is my worst fucking nightmare. By the THIRD time the experiment resets they actually have to introduce a plot twist that’s so maddeningly inconsistent and convenient that even watching the film at home by myself I audibly devolved into Dave Chapelle’s impersonation of Lil Jon, screaming “WHAT?!?” at the top of my lungs, utterly flabbergasted that such a film could ever exist.
By the film’s third circle jerk of plot developments (I wouldn’t dare call them acts), the film has given up trying to prove the worth of philosophical thinking, abandoned the concept of the experiment that requires the students to repopulate the Earth, cancels the apocalypse, and actually has one character (played by Robert Rodriguez regular Daryl Sabara, who, God bless him, I think is trolling this movie) who conducts his own thought experiment within the ongoing thought experiment that he never tells anyone about and that will have no bearing on anything whatsoever. It doesn’t with the experiment ending (which when it does it might as well go out with the sound of a wet fart), but rather with an almost neverending conversation in an empty classroom between the two biggest assholes in the movie and then three brief endings that all feel like the kinds of things you would see in the deleted scenes section of some DVD extras.
I think the great scholar (and cinematic philosopher in his own right) Roger Ebert said it best when he said:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
No one has ever expressed the same aggravating frustration I felt watching this film better. It’s something that I can see one day becoming a camp classic in the same vein as The Room or A Talking Cat?!?, but you would probably have to be “Dennis Hopper in the late 60s/early 70s” levels of wasted or high to even enjoy it. Worst of all, I feel bad now dragging the memory of Roger Ebert into this mess. I want to wake up from this nightmare to find out that I just dreamed this shit up and it was all just a thought experiment. If I ever come out of this on the other side, I will willfully check myself into a mental hospital for the rest of my life for ever having dreamed up something this poisonous. I truly almost want to go on living my life and thinking this film does not exist.