S. Darko (2009), rated R, 104 minutes. Director: Chris Fisher, Screenwriter: Nathan Atkins, Cast: Daveigh Chase, Ed Westwick, Briana Evigan, Elizabeth Berkley, James Lafferty.
Ahhh, sequels. A few weeks into Summer 2009 and this is the third one I’ve seen. Within the next two weeks we get another pair, with several more on the way all season long. I’d ask why, but I think we all already know the reason. The studios want a sense of assurity and comfort; audiences paid before, and rewarded the original, so naturally if you can recreate the same experience with familiar elements the sense of “risk” is lessened. For audiences, if you’ve loved a certain film or franchise, it’s likely that “good” or “necessary” won’t be factors that need to be met before you plop down cash to check out the next one; you simply have to see it. After all, where’s your loyalty?
This goes double for sequels to cult classics. If you raved about it for years, you’re going to find a way to see what they did to “your” movie, even if you deny watching it later. The folks behind S. Darko are counting on the original film’s fans to adopt this mindset. But don’t buy it(the movie or their crap). This latest ‘Donnie Darko Tale’ is a complete disaster; an amorphous blob of half-cooked ideas, appropriated imagery and mind-numbing boredom.
The original Darko seemed to resonate most strongly with the college crowd; it’s characters were all teenagers and it’s time period was the 1980s and these elements created a familiar and nostalgic vibe for an audience in the waiting room of adult life. It was quirky, sarcastic, creepy, sometimes theological and a little existential. The odd mix of a Philosophy 101 lecture and a sunday school lesson run through the filter of John Hughes and Sam Raimi was intoxicating. Good or bad, it was something new. Richard Kelly’s energizing little tale lived in the valley between It’s A Wonderful Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey and for a certain cross-section of people it was just as well loved.
You can’t really come up with a more self-contained film than the original Donnie Darko. Donnie’s experience is like the opposite of George Bailey’s. George gets to see what the world would have been like without him, and why his life was important. Donnie, a troubled teen who has started to wonder if there is something grander going on in the univserse than what he sees in his hometown of Middlesex Virginia, is given the opportunity to cheat his own death and see what the world would be like if he stayed around longer than he was meant to. For Donnie, it has the same affect as George: it makes him see his life has purpose and that he fits into a greater design.
The God of the universe gives this messed-up kid the chance to peek behind the curtain, to be a hero, experience first love, reconnect with his family, and gain free will in the face of his own death. Donnie himself makes the choice that ends the film, and as he does he reflects that “there will be so much to look forward to.” Donnie hasn’t garnered a new lease on life as much as he has eschewed his fear of death and his uncertainty about the existence of God. At the end he hands his life over to the machinations of something bigger than himself and in the process saves his family, friends, and his entire town from destruction. Ultimately, it’s as if his adventure never happened at all, at least to those who knew him;his is a silent sacrifice.
So, whats the complex plot at the heart of S Darko? Well, Samantha wanders off from Middlesex with her friend Corey (Briana Evigan) and they are on their way to L.A. when their car breaks down in the barren small town of Conejo Springs. Samantha petulantly walks around town, meets a few of the locals like Elizabeth Berkley’s creepy christian lady and James Lafferty’s Iraq Jack, a messed-in-the-head war veteran who lives on the outskirts and may or may not be a killer. And then Sam decides that this isn’t her path, parts ways with Corey, and presumably goes back to her parents. The end.
As far as Sam is concerned, those are the events of the movie. More does happen, but honestly it’s nearly incomprehensible and it all seems designed to just mark off moments from the first movie. And Sam, the titular character doesn’t really experience any of it because by the end everything has been re-set by someone else. Samantha Darko never interacts with the supernatural or time-travel elements of the story. The writers leave that to other, odder and less interesting characters. Not that Sam, as presented here, is very interesting. She is a vague concept and bears almost no relationship to the quirky little girl who was Donnie’s sister.
Meteorites fall from the sky, children go missing, Iraq Jack starts seeing a ghostly version of Sam who instructs him that the world is going to end and then we have that always helpful title card that informs us how many days are left. But then, one character makes a Donnie-like sacrifice half-way through the film and re-sets the timeline. The next time we see the title card it’s gone from 4 days left to 6. Why utilize a title card if it’s very presence is rendered obsolete? Easy, because the first Darko did it. That seems to be the only reason behind anything happening in this film. Why have one sacrificial event when we can have two? Why stop with a suspicious guru who makes kiddie porn when you can have one that might be actually killing children? Burned down someone’s house? Lets burn down a church this time! And don’t forget Frank the Bunny! We gotta get him, he’s the most recognizable image! Isn’t he like the Freddy or Jason of this franchise?
The movie’s biggest misstep, at least from a continuity perspective, is that adding in things like Frank and The Philsophy of Time Travel book don’t make any sense. Part of Frank’s appeal is that he is specific to Donnie and the events of Donnie’s journey. There is a mystery to Frank, revealed in the final third. In this movie Sam tells Iraq Jack about Frank and gives him a picture. Where did she get the picture? Why is Roberta Sparrow’s book in her backpack? If Donnie succeeded at all, then those items shouldn’t even BE in Sam’s posession and she should have no knowledge of them. Wasn’t there anyone working on this movie that actually saw the first film?
It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but thats not the case. At the technical level S Darko is accomplished enough but it doesn’t have anything of it’s own to be proud of. The odd, creepy score, the wormhole visual effects and that hulking bunny menace have just been lifted wholesale, and they don’t even make it over in the same shape. The Frank mask in this film has been hammered together in a garage and it looks like a fanmade costume of the original.
S. Darko isn’t a failure just because it’s an inferior sequel. Even divorced from the original, S Darko would be a turkey. It doesn’t make any kind of logical sense and it doesn’t have any central storyline tying together it’s events. Things happen at such a random clip that it eventually becomes disorienting. I was no longer certain what day it was, who the characters were to each other, whether the little boy was actually missing or not, and what exactly the ghostly Sam was trying to save everybody from.
S Darko is a dim bulb of a movie, a cut and paste hackjob of an original vision. No one has any idea why the first movie worked, and they labor here like color blind children trying to recreate the Mona Lisa with crayons and tracing paper. If all you require in a sequel is that it remind you fondly of the original, S Darko still fails. It only manages to evoke Donnie just enough that we become eager to turn it off and watch the original instead. And that, I’m in favor of. You just don’t need to suffer through this experience to do it.
S Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale releases on DVD and Bluray on May 12th, 2009.