Playing Nice with After the Dark, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice,” a series of articles that will examine group dynamics in film. I’m not a behavioral psychologist or anything but I am an avid movie watcher and life-long member/observer of the human race. One of the things that have fascinated me over the years is how group dynamics are depicted in film and especially how they are depicted when the thin veneer of society is stripped away.
**This article will contain spoilers. I highly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** I never took a philosophy class in high school nor did I attend an international school in Jakarta but I can only imagine they are nothing like the depiction in After the Dark. That being said, we watch movies to escape reality. After the Dark takes place in said fictitious school in Jakarta on the last day of class for a group of seniors in a philosophy class. Instead of the typical “goof off day” many seniors get, Mr. Zimit, their teacher (played by the dynamic James D’Arcy), decides to do one last thought experiment with the students. He has a box full of pieces of paper with different occupations on them and he has the students select one at random. He then describes a scenario in which nuclear fallout is heading towards them and there is a bunker with enough air and supplies to last ten of them for one full year. They must decide who goes into the bunker based on their fictitious occupation and who is left out. In the film the bunker is a real place and we see the experiment first hand. Many of the students find the exercise repugnant but when their grades are threatened they all participate. This scenario plays out three times in the film with three different catastrophic events/locations.
Mr. Zimit is the driving force throughout the film. He manipulates the game/exercise and the players/students. The students who oppose him the most are Petra (Sophie Lowe) and James (Phys Wakefield). It is clear from the beginning that he rivals James and is invested in Petra. What isn’t completely clear is why he feels that way about the two characters until the end of the film. At the end it is revealed that he had been having an affair with Petra but she had turned him down and was going to continue her relationship with James and leave Jakarta to go to college.
The relationships between the students are also a compelling dynamic throughout the film. They have been in class together at least year if not the other three years of high school and have a lot of different relationships. People’s romantic interests, sexual orientation, and leadership skills all come in to play during the different scenarios. One moment that many of us can probably relate to is when one student, Bonnie, finds out that another student, Jack, is gay. She admits that she didn’t know and there is a moment in her performance when you understand that she had a crush on Jack and that small hope for romance was just lost. Other romances are revealed throughout the various scenarios, several times someone’s romantic interest in a person makes them fight harder to get their crush into the bunker.
Each round of the scenario is different. In the first there are only nine survivors in the bunker when they deny Mr. Zimit a spot only to find out that he has the exit code to the bunker. After the year, they cannot escape and all die in the bunker. The second round has a new twist. Not only do the students have an occupation they have another detail about themselves. For example; Chips, (played by Daryl Sabra) the carpenter is sterile and cannot help reestablish the population. So the people in the bunker change, most dramatically with the inclusion of Mr. Zimit. They are also told that the bunker is expected to have at least one pregnancy underway by the end of the year. In less than a year emotions bubble over and a fight ensues. Mr. Zimit is hurt very badly, he punches in the code and exposes the whole group to the outside and round two finishes. The third round Petra out smarts Mr. Zimit, she takes his gun and asks the other students to let her choose the ten students for the bunker. Unlike the first two rounds Petra is able to make the tough choice between who lives and who dies based on her gut. She doesn’t include herself in the ten people but Chips sacrifices himself for her. This round they are the happiest they’ve been and find a way to come to peace with the potential end of the world.
Round one really emphasizes the effect that stress can have on a group. The reality that they might not be able to escape looms over them and is emphasized by the remains of Mr. Zimit rotting outside the bunker for a year. They survive but no one is really happy and though they are surviving they are certainly not thriving. Round two focuses on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the pressures they can add. The added pressure of sex and procreation is also added in. Petra had been paired with James before but in round two when we find out that his characteristic is that he is gay. So Petra is partnered with Mr. Zimit. The others are paired up but no pregnancies occur. The added pressures and the groups’ inability to agree with Mr. Zimits’ methods lead to the early termination of the scenario. Round three is arguably the most successful. Everyone is happiest and most the most peace with the scenario.
Mr. Zimit labels himself the wild card in the group. As the leader of the class and the architect of the exercise he has the most power, he even manipulates which occupation/characteristics Petra and James receive. Mr. Zimit uses logic like a weapon and at times like a shield. He throws it in the faces of his students when he doesn’t agree with them or when he is forcing them to make particularly difficult choice. When Georgina is left out of the second bunker because her character could have contracted Ebola she tells Mr. Zimit, “Your logic wreaks of bullshit”. Later when Mr. Zimit proposes that they have multiple sexual partners to achieve a pregnancy Bonnie argues, “We are extreme philosophers because we have big problems to solve, but philosophy isn’t morality and even logic has its limit.” She refuses his proposal which leads to the fight that ends the scenario early. His students are unwilling to sacrifice their ethics in the face of pure logic. The film manages to show the consequences of behaving purely logically, purely emotionally, and somewhere in the middle with three potential results of Mr. Zimits’ behavior, one for each scenario. In one he goes to his office where he removes a sandwich from his desk and eats, in the second he goes back to his office and shoots himself, in the third he goes to his office to sit and reflect on the thought experient in the dark.
As always, these films leave us to reflect on ourselves. Hopefully if there were to be an apocalypse you would be conveniently close to a survival bunker, but what if you had to decide who is worthy of survival and who would be sacrificed to a potentially agonizing death? Would you choose who lives and dies with shrewd logic like Mr. Zimit or would you see the value in everyone like Petra did? Of course the biggest question is: Would you play nice?