{Movie Review} The Philosophers: A Lesson Lost

The Philosophers, released in 2013 in the US as After the Dark, will soon be rereleased by (Yet) Another Distribution Company. Our emotionally charged socio-political climate could really use a powerful story about the merits of logic vs emotion, the good of one vs the good of many, and just how much power individual selfishness wields. But The Philosophers isn’t the film to deliver that. Unfortunately while writer/director John Huddles has an excellent point to make, it’s overshadowed by a mish-mash of unnecessary scene-setting and exasperating overdramatization.

In The Philosophers, high school teacher Mr. Zimit gives his students a final assignment. They’ll randomly choose a profession and personal characteristic before debating which of them will get to survive a nuclear apocalypse. He’ll run them through multiple “iterations” to see what decisions they make. They must see that logic is superior, and decisions based on emotion will end in ruin.  James D’Arcy is convincing as the self-righteous jackass who clearly wants to be Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. His thought experiment is valid, but cracks in his ethical boundaries reveal his underlying motives.

The above could have been an effective look at a thought experiment that devolves into a personal, cerebral grudge-match. But and it’s a big but…as Zimit describes the survival bunker, we see everything as real. This is where The Philosophers sets itself up for failure. Watching the trailer you might assume there’d be a bit of sci-fi, the bunker would be some sort of shared simulation/VR. It’s not; this takes place in everyone’s separate minds which makes the shared iteration scenes completely nonsensical. A narrative device never appears that would explain whose viewpoint we’re sharing, let alone how everyone would see the same things.

For example, when Zimit tells the students he’s shot one of them. It’s hard not to roll eyes at their gasps of shock and dismay in the imagined iteration. Protracted drama of boring days in the bunker make even cannibalism and mass asphyxiation tedious! The exciting action music make the students fleeing imagined atomic blasts even more overblown.

Overall the acting is solid, but few characters are given any development. We don’t even see individual personalities in many of them. The lead student, Petra (Sophie Lowe) could be a super-intelligent, sexy android and we’d never know the difference. (Although that might be why she has two fools vying for her attention…).

A few bright spots come in the form of background characters who aren’t afraid to pull some minor shenanigans of their own. Bonnie Wright’s Georgina has assertiveness to spare and would have made a far more interesting central character. I’d have liked to see her arguments with Zimit go deeper. Chips (Daryl Sabara) gets to deliver the best of the imagined scenarios. These scenes of how things played out in only his head had a simpler format and IMO a greater impact. Plus, Sabara brings a warmth to ordinary characters that’s quite charming in its realism.

I love a movie that makes me think, but I was just waiting and sifting through filler to find the message. If Zimit is right that the weakest minds follow the worst ideas presented the loudest, then his students would have done well to walk out after the first of his many impassioned monologues. When The Philosophers is at its loudest, it can’t get out of its own way to let its good ideas shine.