In this post, I will review John Huddle’s cluelessly crafted After the Dark. In Europe, the movie is titled: The Philosophers, which I just find despicable and ironic about how little understanding of philosophy is in the film. The philosophy in the film is atrocious. Usually, I leave movie reviews to newspapers and online magazines, but unfortunately, this movie is about a philosophy class in an international school in Jakarta. The film’s narrative and characterization of philosophy are troubling to a public possibly ignorant of philosophy, so I react to this movie as a professional philosopher.
The movie has received mixed reviews, but of those that have reviewed it positively, they never comment on the substantive issues of philosophy. Yet, there are those reviews that get it right. Consider Nicholas Rapold’s devastating review in the New York Times:
Slack acting (perhaps aggravated by the harsh lighting design) and the script’s inability to build characters together vaporize the chances for the movie, which is both smugly clever and at times distastefully clueless. There’s a genuine nerdy satisfaction in seeing the bunker conundrum played out completely, as if on an after-school show from Mars. But the deadening classroom story frame makes one wonder why Mr. Huddles didn’t simply commit to one hell on earth and do it well.
Needless to say, spoilers follow. You have been warned.
The premise of the movie is about a philosophy teacher and the last day of class for his graduating seniors. Mr. Zimit teaches his 20 students different thought experiments, and this movie is about the last day of class in which the students run through what we might know as “lifeboat ethics” or problems of scarcity and resource allocation. The thought experiments are all the same. They are three different scenarios in which the students are given a profession and personal details, and they must choose who will stay in a bunker during an atomic attack. The movie lives out the students living out this thought experiment. That’s where the classroom ethos of good teaching and the movie turn sour.
Morally Questionable Teaching and Classroom Gender
As the students play out the thought experiment in the bunker, personal lives are revealed. The students contemplate who will sleep with whom, and the teacher even enters a simulated rape of one unwilling female since the thought experiment is living out the scenario. Keep in mind, this movie is taking place in a preparatory high school environment, and already the inappropriate nature of a thought experiment is being twisted from something thought experiments are never employed to do (more on that in a minute). Let alone the depiction of female roles in the philosophy classroom and thought experiment is highly questionable.
The best student in the class, a female named Petra, is threatened by Mr. Zimit in her final rendition of the thought experiment. He threatens her with reducing her grade from an A+ to a B simply because he is having difficulty with Petra’s version of the final scenario. But what is more disturbing is that the best student in the class is sleeping with the instructor, and the thought experiment is a way to retaliate against Petra’s love interest. The female student is not even known for “her mind” alone, and Mr. Zimit, standing in as a philosopher, is revealed to be a controlling, manipulative, and underhanded teacher—the very type of teacher that would be fired for moral turpitude clauses at any university today.
The True Role of Thought Experiments
During the movie, the beginning thought experiments are filmed in twenty-second scenarios, and that’s the level they should have remained throughout the entire film, even when we got to the post-apocalyptic scenarios. In the philosophy classroom, students never roleplay out thought experiments. Instead, thought experiments are imagined scenarios used to test out the conceivablility and intuitions concerning certain philosophical theses. However, they must be understood appropriately within the context of philosophy under discussion. Huddles botches this severely. For example, when Huddles articulates Judith Jarvis Thomson’s trolley problem. The distinction between initiating harm (the fat man case) and lessening a harm underway (switching the track from killing 5 tied to the track to killing 1 instead) are not revealed in the two versions of the trolley problem.
The onlooker simply gets the impression that philosophy is about roleplaying through ideas, or just coming up with strangely cool thought experiments. There is little, if any, genuine philosophy discussed, and the unknowing spectator will be misled by what philosophy really is. This serious misrepresentation might also be a result of Huddles not understanding philosophy either. The movie’s substance philosophically is as if Huddles got one of those discount books off the shelf at Barnes and Noble about philosophy. It soon becomes obvious that he (along with the movie producers) never research what the function of thought experiments are within philosophy nor how they are employed pedagogically in the classroom.
The Nature of Philosophy
It’s hard to put into words what exactly philosophy is. It’s one of the most intriguing questions: What is philosophy? For pedagogical purposes, I always use the following definition. Philosophy is the intellectual use of the imagination to solve problems that cannot be solved by faith, common sense, or science alone. These problems tend to recur in philosophical imagination. With that said, there is a historical trajectory of these problems just as much as there are timeless abstractions that call us to think about them. The movie tends to the latter without ever addressing the former, and this just becomes another example of Huddles “getting it wrong.”
During the movie, Mr. Zimit uses Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to insult a privileged mediocre student, the very same student that is in love with Petra. We are thrown back with the students in the cave. The scene lasts for about 30 seconds, and we flash into the classroom. Mr. Zimit tells the young man that he is like man trapped and chained to the wall–half aware of life and unaware that he is blind to the cruelties of life. All of this is in the service of Mr. Zimit’s jealously that Petra loves him. There is no context introduced as to what Plato’s cave means. There is no discussion about the Forms, the education of the soul, the lovers of sight and sound from the preceding Book VI…nothing.
In summary, this movie fails on two fronts. First, it fails to understand proper pedagogy in the classroom. It brings up gender worries about its depiction of the best student is simultaneously the love interest of the instructor. One wonders at the possible message that sends, even if the movie producers do not know about the troubles that belabor the profession. Secondly, in failing to articulate proper pedagogy of an instructor, the movie producers and Huddles miss what thought experiments do and the relevant nature of philosophy that could have made this movie better than it is.
In the end, however, the movie is a superficial attempt at achieving depth by thinking the mere mention of ideas is deep. There are plenty of people who are convinced of the depth of mentioning their thoughts, but do not learn how to think about them at all. Huddles seems to be one of them–empty like this movie. This movie is as empty of substance as the referent of “unicorn” is empty of a referent in the empirical world. It is atrocious and once again proves why the world needs philosophy. The worlds needs philosophy because people cannot read critically. That’s the only conceivable explanation why Huddle fails to understand what philosophy is and how it is taught.