By the time I finally saw Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, a fascinating time travel story with superhero undertones, its cult phenomenon status was already confirmed: I managed to catch the maligned Director's Cut in theaters. Regardless of which cut you prefer (each with their own merits, although the original cut is better) and whether you're a newcomer or longtime fan, Darko is a hypnotizing mix of dreamlike cinematography and superb music, built around a dazzling, unique take on time travel. Watching it in preparation for this review (two years short of a decade later), it easily withstands pop culture's natural wear and tear. Now, Fox has decided it's time to cash in on the phenomenon with a belated direct-to-video sequel called S. Darko, which sends Donnie's sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase, reprising her original role) on a sci-fi tale of her own.
Sequels may not be exclusive to film, but they are probably the only time sequels are made by committee, and there's a fascinating corporate science behind the way Hollywood creates franchises out of popular movies. I also can't think of a single department or area of the filmmaking process that isn't impacted by the fact that they're trying to do justice to an existing, beloved movie, without the benefit of spontaneity. Can an original, hit film be boiled down to a formula? I willingly admit to devoting way too much time various movie message boards (including DVDTalk's) weighing the pros and cons of various sequels, because even when the results are terrible (and they usually are), it's fun and fascinating to see what exactly that committee came up with. The bad ideas are interesting, the good ones are even better, and very once in awhile, you get something truly out of left field, anchored almost unwillingly to the foundation that's already been set down.
S. Darko is not an "out-of-left-field" idea. It sits on the bench. One of the earliest signs of trouble in the movie's online trailer was the reappearance of creepy-looking rabbits and the Abyss-style time tendrils. Yes, there's a six-foot tall rabbit in Donnie Darko, but it's not because rabbits themselves have any significance; there's a character inside the rabbit suit, and the character has a reason for wearing it. Not surprisingly, this is beyond screenwriter Nathan Atkins, who packs in as many rabbits, wormholes, hallucinations and prophecies as he can fit into 101 minutes. Paired with director Chris Fisher, the two filmmakers' surface understanding of the original is a major problem before the opening credits roll. Even major issues should be fairly obvious to anyone with a reasonable understanding of Donnie Darko; for instance, The Philosophy of Time Travel re-appears, and if you're playing at home, nobody in this movie should even have awareness of the book, let alone possession of it, if you think about it.
Aside from the mangled mythology, the rest of S. Darko loosely subscribes to the "bigger is better" motif. I don't want to say too much if you're determined to watch it (sigh), but this time around, there are multiple time travelers. The only problem with this idea is that when people time travel more than once in a linear fashion, whatever happens last essentially negates the need for any other time travel. I see what they were going for, because some of these concepts are actually intriguing (in simple terms, the idea that Samantha would be the Frank of this story is clever), but the movie doesn't actually go anywhere with them, and again, anything established in the first film is completely misunderstood. Speaking in serious Darko jargon (which you can find on Wikipedia if you need a helpful cheat sheet), some of the Living Receivers are also Manipulated Dead (and vice versa), Artifacts seem basically ignored or mishandled, and the Fourth Dimensional Construct is unclear. I guess, in some backwards-ass way, later events in the movie wouldn't happen without the first jump, but it only makes partial sense why things ultimately change.
But even beyond the technical aspects of the original, unoriginality adds further insult to injury. Characters like Pastor John (played by Matthew Davis) are directly derivative of characters from Donnie Darko, and the film's twists and turns don't really go anyplace new. Beyond that, Fisher demonstrates his incompetence as a director. A car crash is clearly intended to catch both the audience and the characters by surprise, but Fisher's execution just seems like crappy editing. Objects get sucked into wormholes for no obvious reason other than it being visually interesting. He even throws in an interminable attempt to recreate the "Mad World" montage from the end of the original film (actually, if my eyes don't deceive me, he actually does this twice). Finally, the whole project seems to be directed specifically towards teenage girls for some reason (maybe Fox had some demographic numbers to test?).
Although Chase is probably meant to be a big draw as the one returning cast member, she seems barely engaged. She's so quiet, her performance almost doesn't register, and the rest of the time she just floats around like she's daydreaming of something else. Some of the slack could've been picked up by Briana Evigan as Samantha's best friend Corey, but Evigan is annoying. Corey is poorly written with unexplained, plot-convenient mood swings, and Evigan does nothing to make her more sympathetic. Meanwhile, Ed Westwick sulks in the background, looking like the love child of Jimmy Fallon and an angry Calvin Klein model, and the movie just wastes veteran character actor John Hawkes, which is a shame when it happens in good movies but is outright criminal in a film like this. Only Jackson Rathbone makes a noticeable impression as a local science nerd, but his character is let down by the script during a vaguely intriguing but poorly-written third act.
If you stuck S. Darko in a blender and stuck some short pieces on YouTube, it might look like a far more interesting movie than it really is. I remember being on those message boards I mentioned and sticking up for the principle of a Darko sequel: I felt like someone could have taken Kelly's mythology and really run with it, which to me was enough room to give an attempt the benefit of the doubt. Now that I've seen the final product, I can say that although Chris Fisher and Nathan Atkins certainly have some grand ideas for the movie (that mishandled climax might have been an insane head trip in a better film), they just don't understand Donnie Darko on either of two key levels: how the movie's ideas were meant to work, and what it was that made the movie successful. Perhaps a third Donnie Darko will get it right.
Fox, as they are wont to do, sent a screener disc in a paper sleeve, so I don't get to examine the details of the cover, which features one of the new bunny heads with a faded image of Samantha perched on the nose. The online version bears the distinct mark of Photoshop, I imagine the retail version will too. I'm also still disappointed that not only did they not go with the much better sounding Samantha Darko, but they've appended A Donnie Darko Tale to the end of the title to scare away the uninitiated.
The Video and Audio
Since this is a screener, I can't accurately judge the video and audio on this disc, which are watermarked and poorly compressed, but when the film streets on May 12th, it should pack an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen presentation, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French and Spanish audio, English captions and French and Spanish subtitles.
Fisher, Atkins and cinematographer Marvin V. Rush provide a feature-length audio commentary, and it's actually alright. They don't offer up any explanations that make the movie magically come together (it's more about the technical making of the movie than the thematic), but it's a reasonably informative chat.
Two featurettes are included. "The Making of S. Darko" (15:01) is a painful watch; it literally opens with several of the cast and crew explaining why it's such a bad idea to make a sequel to Donnie Darko. Rathbone suggests that when he heard it was a "continuation" instead of a "sequel" he became more willing to jump on board. Perhaps next time the script should play a part, no? Fisher even admits that he has a limited knowledge of Kelly's mythology. Really, the best thing I can say about it is that it actually features very few film clips. "Utah Too Much" (6:45) covers filming in Utah, based around John Hawkes performing a song he and some of the other cast (more charismatic than they are in the movie itself) and crew wrote by the same name. It's not really my kind of music, but you can't argue with more John Hawkes.
Six deleted scenes (06:04) consist mainly of girls being awful to one another, although the first one at least features some of the score, by Ed Harcourt, which is actually nice, for the most part. No commentary is included to explain why they were deleted.
Automatic trailers for Post Grad (Michael Keaton, what happened to you?), Notorious, Taken and Possession play when you put in the disc. From the menu, you can also watch trailers for The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Betrayed, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and 12 Rounds (not Donnie Darko, though...hmmm). The film's original trailer is also included.
The only thing missing from this disc are three viral videos that appeared on YouTube to promote the film. The first and third one weren't that great, but the second one was more entertaining than the film itself.
As a movie, S. Darko is terrible, and as a sequel, it's slightly worse. Sadly, I bet there's better Donnie Darko fan fiction out there than this, and fans of the original will be annoyed to see the concepts of the first film get hamfistedly misappropriated by a creative team that doesn't understand them. Only those who like torturing themselves with terrible sequels (like me!) should do anything but skip this stupid cash-in.
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