A film worth discussion: After the Dark

MV5BMjIyNjY4MjM1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTQyNzE4MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_After the Dark is a 2013 film (currently available on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix) by director and writer John Huddles.

The film’s story focuses on a classroom of high school seniors at an international school in Jakarta. Their handsome philosophy teacher Mr. Zimit takes the class into one last “thought experiment” on this last day of the school year. Are the students ready to face life without his guidance? Are they capable of making rational decisions untouched by the emotions which so easily tip humans off their game?

I won’t spoil the film’s ending for you, though I do have two important comments to make if you’re considering showing the film to spark a discussion:

– The movie is rated R for sexuality and language. I wouldn’t show it in a high school classroom without dropping a few scenes.

– You will despise the ending. Truly. I hated it. I’d say 90% of the film was very good – it wanders sometimes, and I think the story could have been better. But that criticism pales to how much I absolutely hate the last 5 minutes of this film. It’s an unnecessary distraction to what has – up to this point – been a decent film and a good conversation starter.

My recommendation is to stop the film at the point the students return their textbooks at the end of class. If you allow the filmmaker to show you the rest of his ending (where the teacher & Petra have a private conversation) you’ll hate yourself. Or him. Trust me.

If you want students to consider the effect of the ending on the film’s interpretation by the viewer, stop it about 10 minutes before the end and have students write out their ending for the movie.  Share and read the endings aloud, discussing how each portrays a different evaluation of the characters in the film (at least the main students + the teacher).  Then show them the rest of the film, and discuss it. (See below for ideas.)

Using the film for discussion

After the Dark seems relevant to two primary audiences:
1. teachers, especially in high school or post-secondary education, in a variety of fields (including but not limited to philosophy, ethics, sociology, political science, education, as well as literature and film)

2. students taking classes in the disciplines listed under #1, as well as classes focusing on analysis of film, pedagogy techniques, or critical analysis of story or narrative.

Questions for discussion (SPOILERS!):

* The overall thought experiment and how the teacher used those structured lessons/discussions to educate his pupils:  What are the strengths of this approach? What are the weaknesses? Does the teacher make the best use of his thought experiment, or does he derail it?

* What responsibility does a teacher have to challenge his/her students’ assumptions and force them to think differently, even when that process makes students uncomfortable? Are there boundaries that should limit a teacher’s actions in challenging students’ beliefs? Did Zimit adhere to reasonable boundaries?

* Which students grew the most during the thought experiment? How do you know?

* Do you think this was a “fair” educational exercise? How much is Zimit controlling their decisions?

* How did your perception of Mr. Zimit change as the story progressed? How did the filmmaker manipulate your attitude toward Zimit?

* If you watch the full ending of the film, analyze it. Consider how that ending affects your understanding of the film’s theme and purpose.   If you wrote your own endings before watching the director’s ending, analyze the power of these final minutes to affect the viewer’s understanding and assessment of the film’s themes and the main characters.

* Do you agree with Petra that life without the arts isn’t a life worth living?

* Do you think the “thought experiment” as it plays out across the 3 iterations is realistic? In other words, would you expect most Westerners in this situation to react more or less like the students do?  How would a group of people in their 40s approach these decisions?

* Are the students ready for life outside Zimit’s classroom?  Have they learned to think “logically” or have they gained a different skill?

* Explore the visual symbolism of the film. For example, did you notice anything about the way Petra is usually portrayed? (camera angles, lighting, point of view)  [Is she a messiah figure?]

Have you seen the film? If so, got any other questions to add to the list? 


Discussion questions and ideas for the film Ex Machina

Warning: Don’t read this post if you haven’t watched the film Ex Machina, because 1) you really really should go see this movie* even if you don’t think you’ll like it, and 2) therefore, I don’t want to spoil it for you. 

OK?  Ok.  *N.B.: The film earns its R rating with some language (no biggie) and some shots of full female nudity. It’s a story about a female robot, so the images make sense within the narrative and I wouldn’t call them gratuitous. But I don’t want anyone to show up and be shocked (especially if they took their teen sons with them. And the nudity definitely would prevent high school teachers from being able to use this film in the classroom.)

from the movie website

from the movie website

Ex Machina is a cerebral sci-fi film, taking us deeply into questions about human intelligence, sentience, consciousness, gender identity, and scientific morality. A well-crafted story in its own right, the sparse cast (only 4) and single location suggest the film is closer to ‘indie” (made on a very tight budget) than anything that usually hits our screens. That tight budget still paid for 4 fantastic actors and some incredible VFX work.

I think Ex Machina is one of the best discussion films I’ve seen in a while – stories that are well worth taking apart afterward (and if I’m with over-21s, a pint is a necessity). Below are the questions and ideas that occupied our in-hosue talk the day after we saw the movie.

I invite you to see the film and talk it through, or include it in classroom discussions (on the college level) in classes ranging from gender studies and feminism to tech ethics and artificial intelligence.

Questions for initial discussion

  1. Is Nathan a reliable or unreliable narrator of his own motives and story?  What can we say with certainty that we know about him or his actions in the film?
  2. Does Caleb ever do anything we would consider truly unethical? Does he “deserve” his end?
  3. Speaking of the ending – how many legitimate storylines can you draft for the final scenes in the film? (“Legitimate” means the words and actions on screen as well as the previous scenes can support the storyline you suggest without breaking people’s expectations for story structure, honesty, or common sense.)
  4. Do you think there are any plot holes in the film?
  5. Before Ava “puts on” the skin of the other robots, do you think she passes the Turing Test? In other words, is her sentience / conscious awareness enough to allow her to exist with humans, or must she also take on the form of humanity?
  6. Kyoko is a disturbing character to watch. What do her interactions with the other characters show us about Nathan, Caleb, and Ava? And about herself?
  7. If you say it fast enough, Bluebook sounds a lot like Google. The similarities were thinly veiled. What does the film say to us about the dangers of our technophilic world?

Themes for discussion

Scientists never work only for the benefit of objective “knowledge.” There’s always an element of personal interest.   Nathan is a rich and disturbing character. We don’t know whether he’s lying about himself or being lied about. But one thing seems to be clear: He created these robots, so he does not view them (or treat them) as human. But Caleb doesn’t fare much better in his attempts to assess Ava “objectively.”  She nails that when she asks, “What will happen if I fail your test?”

We create in our own image. I think Ex Machina is, at its core, an “image of the Creator” story. There are plenty of these – the Avengers: Age of Ultron film is exploring some of the same ground. But Ex Machina does this theme really well. The ending leaves us with many questions.  One of them (to me) is to wonder whether Ava is merely acting out what she learned from the only two humans she’s ever met. (He who sets a trap will fall into it, as the Proverb says. Maybe that explains her actions toward Caleb in the final scenes?)  If so, is she morally responsible for her choices?

Parallel reading: It’s hard to beat George R. R. Martin’s short story “Sandkings” when you’re looking for an example of just how bad an idea it is for humans to “create” in their own image.

It’s extremely difficult to define human-ness, or even consciousness. The film forces us off-balance, constantly observing (just like Caleb) and assessing Ava. Is she “human enough”? What would that even mean? Scientists keep changing the rules of the original Turing Test as our AI’s get smarter and more useful. We’re struggling to define the edges of consciousness.

Alex Leadbeater wrote an excellent discussion of this theme on What Culture. I recommend checking it out and adding his article to your discussion material.  He also delves into some of the nuances of the characters’ actions and choices, and offers a few explanations for the ambiguous ending.

And, of course, for those who view humanity through the lens of Christian theology, the questions get even more interesting. Can humans create an intelligence that’s “better” (morally, ethically) than we are in our brokenness? If we hold to the idea that the imago Dei principle must extend to our own creative efforts – that we cannot escape making an intelligence in the shape of our own humanity – does that intelligence have any chance of choosing a higher moral ground? Or will an AI drive us all to extinction or termination (as nearly every sci-fi story seems to fear)?

To put it another way, would it have made the story stronger or weaker if Ava had shown mercy to Caleb in the final scene and released him from what seems to be a death trap?  His own trap, but one he set on her behalf. (Leadbeater suggests an alternate reading of the ending that makes Ava less of a cold blooded killer.)  Anyway, I’m glad the film doesn’t send Caleb and Ava off into the romantic sunset to live out some kind of weird AI – human relationship.  But I was a little stunned by her actions in the ending. That was disappointing too. Must all of our AI’s be dragged down by original sin, too? I s that the fate of human creation?

Ava’s journey also reminds us that true sentience must involve self-will, and that means (from the perspective of the human creator) loss of control.  Is that what we fear most from the idea of artificial intelligence – that we will lose control? Why don’t children terrify us the same way?

Perhaps – if humans ever do create a genuinely conscious AI – we will begin to understand much more about the paradox of free will vs determinism (especially when that question rolls into theological realms and takes up the mantle of “the problem of evil“).

Ava’s final scenes show her applying “skin” to her frame, examining her appearance, putting on clothes, and blending into humanity. Her conscious intelligence cannot take her into the realm of humans safely. There’s a lot of feminist imagery in those final scenes, as she is “born” into the world of men through her rise to the surface. Worth discussing.

Integrated Unit: Wrapup

Well, it’s the end of the week.

I wouldn’t say we’re “done.” I mean, educators are never DONE. There’s always another way we could extend the lesson, another application, a list of “oh, we should have done it that way” suggestions for next time. But we’re “done” in the scheduling sense.” ‘But I think our students have gained a much more nuanced understanding of the issues facing churches, charities, and governments. And they’re excited about biting off a tiny bit of the problem to tackle in our area.

This morning we sat around and discussed at length an article in the Columbia Free Times about 4 responses to the issues of poverty in SC, especially in the area of government action.
“Four Views on Poverty”

Is a flat tax detrimental to the poor?
Does improved access to education really make the difference for people trying to get out of poverty?
Does SC tax the poor too much, or throw away resources by offering huge incentives to giant corporations like BMW to move here while taxing small businesses?
How do we live out the Gospel among the poor without exacerbating the problem, shoveling it off onto the government, or condescending in our attitudes toward those who need help?
What balance should we strike between government support for ending poverty and nongovernment charity action?

Nobody has easy answers to these questions, but the first step toward being able to do something about it must be wrestling with the problem.

Our culminating activity for the unit requires the “family groups” of students (see Monday’s post) to organize some kind of service project. Specifically, we have asked them to target one church in the area and try to connect that church with a local charity — to provoke people toward some specific action or change of behavior which will help support the charity or alleviate suffering.

At first, the students wanted to do school-ish things: “We’re going to make a poster about hunger in the area.”  That’s well and good … except we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. This isn’t “school” in the negative sense where the most “important” tasks usually require writing an essay on the same topic that was handed out to the class last year.  We don’t need a poster when charities usually have their own promotional materials. We don’t need to make a video about child abuse; YouTube has 1000 great PSA videos already.

What we need are connectors: for students to choose an action as their goal, recognize the road blocks that keep people in their target audience from doing something about the goal, and removing those barriers. 

Sounds like Kingdom work to me. 😉

LiveBlogging: Integrated Unit: CHC Workday

More work!

If you don’t know anything about Calvary Home for Children, you should (especially if you live in SC). CHC operates within the state foster system as a private, independent group home for foster kids who are in some of the worst position: they are in “long term” foster care, meaning that their parents’ rights have been (or probably will be) terminated.

We’ve had the joy of working with several CHC kids as students at NCS over the years. Unfortunately, CHC isn’t able to accept any teenagers right now so I really miss having CHC kids in our classrooms.  They are currently raising money so they can staff another cottage with house parents and take in more kids!!

There’s always volunteer work to be done at CHC. Just give them a call and set up a time when you can use your skills.  Today the NewCov kids headed over there (it’s just a mile down the road from us) to sort food goods in the pantry and pick up rocks.  Really… I’m not kidding.  They needed to clear the big field of rocks!  So– 3 hours of hard work well done:

Jack Knipe, Sarah, David, and Lauren are sorting and organizing the giant pantry. The typical CHC cottage can house 8 foster kids PLUS the house parents and THEIR kids. So it’s a big pantry. lol

Riley and MK lost among the canned goods. lol

Meanwhile…. everybody else picked up rocks. YEAH.

Workin’ hard or hardly workin’?

Dusting off those wheelbarrow skills. And sore muscles.

LiveBlog: Integrated Unit: From God to You Ministries

Wednesday = “Stop talking and let’s work” Day!

Despite the pouring-down rain, everybody loaded up into cars and drove up to Greenville to visit From God To You ministries, which provides food and other assistance to families who need it.

The man who runs it does much of the work himself. So having 40 people show up to package 600 bags of food for the families to pick up later saved him so much time!  We were done in 45 minutes instead of him working all day.

Here are the hands and feet of the Gospel. That’s a lesson worth teaching.


I love it when our NCS alumni come back for a workday!

Working at From God to You ministries

LiveBlog: Integrated Unit — CHC tour

OK, enough talking already!  Time to go do something….

NCS students went to our local, awesome foster care ministry (just up the street), Calvary Home for Children. CHC has been helping kids for over 5 years, providing a caring environment for many kids who would otherwise be lost in a “system” that struggles to serve long-term foster children. 

The students are touring the facilities today to learn about the ministry from director Greg Skipper. On Thursday they’ll get to roll up their sleeves and do some volunteer work at CHC.

NCS students touring Calvary Home for Children on 10/18/11

LiveBlogging: Poverty Unit — SPENT

No point in reinventing the wheel.  This is one of the best simulations I’ve ever found for teaching people about the way financial hardship can affect nearly any family at any time.


We played the game this morning as a group, taking majority votes on hard decisions arising from real-life situations like “You’re sick today but you don’t get paid any sick days.  Do you call in sick or go to work anyway?”

It’s funny how the kids didn’t recognize the ways they were slipping into the “parent mindset” that they hate so much day to day.  When given the prospect of spending $10 they didn’t have so their kid could go on a field trip or telling the kid to stay home, a chorus erupted:  “Just tell the kid to suck it up!”  We teachers spent a lot of time pointing the students toward the emotional and relational effects of the current recession.  Low-income families have a much higher incidence of depression, health-problems, stress-related fights, and abuse.

In fact, when given the option of helping a friend move for $50 OR attending their kid’s school play (in which the kid was playing a starring role), the initial choice was to blow off the kid’s play to earn the $50.  Turning that around on the students, we asked them to consider the relational costs of their choices as “parents” in the simulation.

People are more important than things.  Or money.   We tend to assume that rich people worship money, but actually — those who are poor fall into that sin just as often (or more).

*I really like Spent because it ends with an opportunity to donate $5 toward a NC charity that assists poor family.