Credit for being offbeat can only do so much to redeem a neither-fish-nor-fowl bore like “After the Dark,” whose exploitable elements go tastefully unexploited while its gestures toward profundity turn out to be playing air guitar. This what-if fantasy, starring James D’Arcy as a philosophy instructor challenging young minds with successive doomsday scenarios, is talky, tedious and carelessly implausible even by its own rulebook. The result feels like several discarded script ideas for “Lost” episodes, recast with young hotties and produced in Indonesia for tax purposes; genre fans lured in by the promise of sci-fi suspense are going to be very annoyed on the way out. Opened in Stateside theaters last week simultaneously with its VOD launch, writer-director John Huddles’ feature will look to make whatever coin it can in home formats.
Mr. Zimit (D’Arcy) is teaching the last class of the semester to graduating seniors at an international high school in Jakarta. He proposes they conduct a “thought experiment” to test their mastery of logic — no matter that this particular exercise would seem more apt around a campfire on an Outward Bound weekend than in any kind of philosophy course. (The film was titled “The Philosophers” during what appears to have been a long period on the shelf, and in some prior festival/foreign release showings.)
The game’s premise: Atomic apocalypse is an immediate certainty. On an imaginary field trip to the ninth-century Prambanan Temple complex, the 21 kids and instructor have only minutes to decide who merits saving in a conveniently nearby luxury survival bunker equipped to sustain only 10 lives for a year. The rest will shortly be toast. Each has randomly picked a card describing his or her fictitious vocation — from carpenter, doctor and organic farmer (all plusses when re-building civilization) to “published poet.” The latter is shot dead mid-sentence by Mr. Zimit … pretend-shot, of course. (But why is the teacher carrying a loaded revolver in the first place? Oh, never mind.)
Indeed, what renders these hypothetical situations pointless is that as a self-appointed “wild card” with mystery skills, D’Arcy’s character always seems able to destroy everyone’s future, no matter what collective decisions they make. It’s like a bratty child repeatedly yelling, “I win because of invisible superpowers I just made up!” during group play. Beyond being petulant, silly, and non-educational, his classroom behavior is about as professionally credible as that of movie psychoanalysts who are forever sleeping with (or murdering) their clients — a comparison all too apt by the soap-operatic fadeout here.
This interfering factor gets more objectionable when the same scenario is replayed with fresh changes that render sexual preferences and fertility status a major issue. Then there’s a third go-round in which, due to the collective outcry at his dubious tactics, Mr. Zimit lets the teacher’s pet, duly named Petra (Sophie Lowe), choose the bunker inhabitants by herself. This allows the final fantasy iteration to leave thrill-free terrain for something cloyingly precious.
Remaining immaculately groomed through every cataclysm, the youthful thesps are merely required to be earnest, and can treat “After the Dark” as a useful resume builder. The exception is Lowe (“Beautiful Kate”), who began her public life as a model and, if this were her last project, would end it as one, too. D’Arcy manages to maintain some dignity under the circumstances, until late in the game he is required to appear looking like a caveman right out of those Geico ads. Adios, last shred of dignity.
For a professed “think piece,” “After the Dark” is often remarkably lightheaded. Time and again its hypothetical scenarios hinge on information that the students, detailing aloud their fantasy futures, could only glean were they watching the same turgid dramatizations we are. Unfortunately this arbitrary logic never becomes fun, even unintentionally so — everything here is treated with a ponderous gravity that fails to impart actual depth.
Even the fairly handsome packaging doesn’t help much, since aside from nuclear mushroom clouds and a few other visual effects, the yakkety material might’ve worked just as well (i.e., not very) as a stage play. Nonetheless, John Radel’s widescreen lensing reps the most diverting element in a polished if empty package.