S. DARKO A Donnie Darko Tale DVD Review

     May 9, 2009







I used to think that Donnie Darko was a mediocre film with a great casting director. The cinematography was solid and the dialogue was well above par, but most of the film made little to no sense, a problem that the Director’s Cut strangely exacerbated by explaining everything to death.



Richard Kelly’s biggest problem is that his scripts and films feel like they are made on a template. First you take a pseudo-intellectual text, something obscure, but not so obscure as to alienate hipster kids. Something you might find in a second level college lit class. Robert Frost and The Book of Revelations for Southland Tales, No Exit for the upcoming, The Box,* and of course Watership Down for Donnie Darko**. Then you add on some Tarantino-esque pop culture jargon. Discussions of Smurfs, or porno-chic, or NASA. Then, slather on some peculiar sci-fi elements. An inter-dimensional bunny rabbit, a time warp outside of Vegas, nosebleed-inducing aliens from mars. And in the third act, the world either ends, or narrowly avoids ending. This basic premise holds true for 5 of the 6 of the Kelly scripts I have read.



I know that Kelly has said some less than kind things about this sequel, but I really think he should send everyone involved a nice muffin basket because S. Darko is the kind of movie that makes you appreciate the intelligence and (comparative) restraint of the earlier film. I think I might actually like Donnie Darko MORE because of how botched this film is.



S. Darko is a case study in the importance of a director in the filmmaking process. Much of S. Darko is almost a remix of the prior film. All the elements of the “manipulated dead” and time travel, and self-sacrifice, and weird talking bunnies, linked together by a coming of age story are there, but all of them feel like left over scraps, stale and chewy from too much time in the microwave.



The story picks up 7 years after the original (as explained in an over long scroll that passes over the screen entirely too quickly to read) with Donnie’s little sister, Samantha, running away from home accompanied by the soaking wet chick from the Step Up 2 the Streets poster***. After a pointless 5 minute long sequence of the duo driving, the car breaks down in a small town. The girls have a few days to kill, so they get into some supernatural mischief.



I was actually looking forward to this film. The trailer was solid, and the lead actress, played by Daveigh Chase (reprising her role as Samantha Darko from the original), is stunningly gorgeous. Her sidekick, Briana Evigan ain’t too hard on the eyes either. Also, I have always had a soft spot for side-quels about minor characters as they remind me of some of my favorite passages from Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.



But here’s the thing. This isn’t a sequel to Donnie Darko at all. Sure, it riffs on the same themes, and has a couple of characters with the same last names, and repeats a few images and gimmicks from the first, but it doesn’t feel like Chase is really playing the same character as in the original. And nothing here builds on the previous mythology. There is nothing tying this film to the previous story. In fact, the whole thing is ever more far flung than it might otherwise be because it has some returning characters. I mean, what is the likelihood that not one, but two people from the same family would get caught in time warps?



The filmmakers don’t copy everything from the first and there are a few nice twists and turns. The film even managed to surprise me with a twist at the midpoint. This film does go further into the time travel mythos than the first, but it’s far below the level of Timecrimes or even the Star Trek reboot (which it is actually surprisingly similar to). I suppose the movie deserves some points for the ingenuity of acts two and three, but at the same time, even the interesting ideas about time travel just feel half baked.



Donnie Darko worked because it was an interesting story about a troubled youth coming of age in 1980’s suburbia, and then psychedelic shit started to happen. Even if Frank the bunny never showed up, Donnie was still a compelling character with issues and ideas that could carry a movie. This is not the case in S. Darko. Chase is likable, but mostly flat. Her character is the star only because of the title recognition factor, pretty much everyone else is more dynamic. Meanwhile, Evigan is simply obnoxious reading every line with bizarre intonation, feeling as natural on screen as Xavier: Renegade Angel. Donnie had solid character work with an arc that stood on its own, even without the scifi, Samantha has nothing to offer except the scifi.



And the movie is ugly to look at too. Whereas the original was lush with deep blues and echoing blacks, this sequel is just bland, flat, digital photography. Weirdly, the filmmakers attempted to repeat some of the visual gags from the original. There are a few long tracking shots, except, instead of making use of kickass music and slo-mo everything is cut together roughly to anonymous music that doesn’t even begin to represent the time period.



Come to think of it, you could probably justify S. Darko as a giant meta commentary. The film is almost like a bizzaro-world version of the original, copying everything, except inverted. Stupid where it should be smart. Ugly where it should be attractive. Slapdash where it should be poised. That, or it’s the work of hacks.



THE DVD:



Donnie Darko has one of the best DVD special features sections I have ever seen**** the sequel has a similarly nice set.



The DVD includes a commentary track by the filmmakers that is actually worth a listen if you have ever wondered, “who makes this stuff?! And why!?” it’s not great but it is better than most.



The disc also boasts a smattering of deleted scenes. They don’t match the 40+ minutes cut from the original, but they do give an interesting look behind the curtain into all the trouble that goes into making even a DTV film.



There is also a fairly standard making of feature that displays both of the leads as much more likable off camera. They both deserve to work again, hopefully on something more compelling.



Finally, there is a strange feature called, “Utah Too Much” a silly country song some of the cast threw together during principal photography. Not incredible, but at least it’s different from the standard stuff you see on DVDs.



CONCLUSION:



At the end of the day, Kelly strikes me as a phenomenal writer who has a great deal of trouble telling a story. But S. Darko mistakes imitation for innovation, randomness for surrealism, and crassness for transgression.



It’s not that this movie is terrible. It’s actually better than most DTV films and it does make a couple of interesting choices…but it really is a weak little sister.




* The screenplay I read is several years old, so it may differ from the final film, but there were entire scenes taken directly from Sartre’s play.



**Domino does not have this literary shtick. It’s also the best thing he has ever written.



***Presumably also the soaking wet girl from the Step Up 2 the Streets feature as well.



****Behind Fight Club Special Edition and Alien Quadrilogy box set off the top of my head.




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