academy: a tale of a post-apocalyptic utopia practising and teaching a flawed code of ethics

Ian Salazar, “academy” (2020)

In the not too distant future, when Western civilisation has collapsed and Western culture has regressed to the point where Christian fundamentalism has become the only religion, a community called The Colony has formed in a distant territory and its Motherland prepares to send a group of new leaders, on the verge of graduating from its academy, to that community. The new leaders are a group of six young people who have been trained in the Motherland’s philosophy and code of ethics. On their final day, they are subjected to a test. The test turns out to be a brutal one: they must decide if a masked prisoner – a former student who has apparently broken the law, though they are not told who the prisoner is, nor are they informed of the nature of his offence – must be executed by a man with a machine gun; if the prisoner is not to die, then one of the students must take his place.

In a few short minutes, the students (having been taught only what is good and what is bad according to the Motherland’s law, and never been taught to think critically) bicker over whether the masked man deserves to live or to die, regardless of what he has actually done or not done. Time runs out and a toaster rings a bell and pops out a slice of toast. The students haven’t actually decided and agreed on what to do so one of them, Number 27 (Kathleen Kenny) impulsively offers to take the place of the prisoner. She is masked and made to kneel, and the executioner puts the muzzle of his weapon against her head.

What happens next is shocking and illustrates the shortcomings of a post-apocalyptic police-state dystopia based on a particular and narrow interpretation of Christian philosophy and ethics. Number 27 surprisingly (spoiler alert) has done the right thing and receives her just reward. Self-sacrifice, being prepared to become like Christ, is judged by the examiners (represented by their voice, played by director Salazar himself, coming through a megaphone) to be the ideal overriding all notions of what is “good” and what is “bad” – but it would seem that none of the students has been taught that what is “good” and what is “bad” may depend very much on the situation in which something happens. At the end of the film, viewers do not know if Number 27 has learned anything from her experience, whether she realises that what she has been taught is no more than a guide or a tool and that from here on, she will have to rely on her own intelligence to make sense of situations that may be neither “good” nor “bad”. We merely see Number 27 alone with her reward as she stumbles out of the academy and into the light.

The juxtaposition of this film with an old 1950s-era archived film of an ideal Christian society in the US reinforces the notion of a utopian society having become a twisted police-state version of its original self due perhaps to contradictions and flaws in its interpretation of Christian ethics, valuing conformity and rigid thinking over flexibility and true compassion. While perhaps not a great film due to its very restricted length – a full movie treatment would (hopefully) delve more into the nature of the dystopian society that produced the students, and explore their personalities, motivations and characters – “academy” nevertheless tells a complete tale with an unexpected twist and a definite conclusion that closes off one story and leads to a potential sequel that tells a new story.