[25 May 2009]
Richard Kelly’s debut feature Donnie Darko can be considered one of the first true cult hits of the new century. Though not a blockbuster financial success, the film became ingrained in popular culture just the same. Donnie Darko’s success came primarily through word of mouth, much of it from the Internet. Many of those who championed Donnie Darko through the years made their voices heard once again upon the announcement of a planned sequel, S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale.
The most frequent criticism was to condemn the film as a mere cash-in on a popular title, a claim indirectly validated when Kelly made it known that he had sold the rights to the film and the sequel was produced without his blessing. After months of negative hype, S. Darko has arrived on DVD and finally has the chance to prove its worth.
Scrolling titles inform the audience that Samantha Darko felt increasingly alienated from her parents after her brother’s death, leading her to head for California with best friend Corey in June of 1995. Their car’s water pump fails just outside of Conejo Springs, Utah but they are lucky enough to be found by passing motorist and local bad boy Randy. The car will take several days to repair so the girls are stuck in the small town with its strange inhabitants, the oddest of which Sam first meets during one of her troubling dreams.
“Iraq Jack” is a mentally unstable veteran who has become the town’s boogeyman, blamed for everything from minor vandalism to child abductions. Jack sees Sam as a beautiful princess sent to teach him the secrets of time travel to stop the rapidly approaching apocalypse. The lives of the girls, Jack, and several of the townspeople become intertwined when a meteorite crashes on the outskirts of town; the first of many inexplicable events that occur after their arrival. The meteorite strike causes time to become malleable in Conejo Springs and Sam and Corey travel back and forth through time in an attempt to secure the best outcome for themselves and the townspeople.
It would be easy to write off S. Darko as simply an example of Hollywood’s greed and inability to understand Donnie Darko’s fanbase. Additionally, several films from the same time period have received direct-to-DVD sequels of questionable quality, so making the same assumption about this film might not seem too far of a stretch.
To dismiss S. Darko immediately is unfair, however. Putting aside any qualms regarding the motive behind its creation, S. Darko exists now and therefore is due a fair assessment of its merit separate from any consideration of its beloved predecessor.
But try as I might to evaluate S. Darko on its own merits, the task proves difficult, if not impossible. Much of the film serves little purpose other than to remind the audience of its inspiration. S. Darko isn’t as much a sequel as it is a remake; one created by less capable hands. To enumerate all of the points of similarity would be a bit too unkind but suffice to say they are numerous enough that there are few surprises in the film for those who have seen Donnie Darko.
The fact that S. Darko chooses to follow so closely in Donnie Darko’s footsteps is unfortunate, given that the premise had the potential to be something more substantial. The relationship between Samantha and Corey is woefully unexplored. I think that reading their relationship as having lesbian overtones is not unjustified, particularly in light of Samantha’s reaction to Randy.
It’s clear that she is not jealous of his affection for Corey but rather Corey’s obvious attraction to him. A confrontation between the two after Corey spends the night at Randy’s house proves to be a pivotal moment in the film for other reasons, but ultimately the film does little with these implications other than an off-hand remark comparing the girls to Thelma and Louise.
Since the main character is female, S. Darko could have chosen to revisit the same concepts of teenage alienation as Donnie Darko from a female perspective. Aside from a few catty comments by the girls, they appear to be more disinterested than angry. On the time travel side of things, Sam and Corey seem to be at the mercy of time instead of in control of it, and their forays into the time-stream are depicted as accidental.
The “Donnie” and “Frank” roles are both given to Jack. Over the course of the film the girls are never shown as having emotional or physical strength and are marginalized to the point that even Samantha’s “victory” at the film’s climax is immediately snatched away from her.
This idea that S. Darko is merely an attempt to draw in curious fans without actually offering something of substance is furthered by the casting choices; a collection of vixens and heartthrobs compiled largely from the CW Network’s talent pool. Briana Evigan’s range seems to be broader than that of Daveigh Chase, but this is possibly due to being given more to do in the film. Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick and Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone both exceed expectations with their roles and handle well the dynamism of their characters.
If you’re a fan of any of the above, you will want to give attention to the two featurettes included as special features, during which they are all heavily featured. Overall the special features on the disc neither exceed or fall short of what has come to be the standard on major studio releases: commentary, deleted scenes, and featurettes.
S. Darko leaves me with the impression that the filmmakers understood Donnie Darko on a purely superficial level. That is to say they were able to replicate the film’s techniques, but not the intent behind them. Slow motion shots, a time-capsule soundtrack, and pop culture references were each important aspects of Donnie Darko, yet randomly combining these elements does not achieve the same effect.
S. Darko has its faults, granted, but they are ones that would be generally forgivable in another film and it does have some entertaining moments. S. Darko’s problem is that it wants so badly to be Donnie Darko; a sentiment even echoed by the character through her envy of her brother. Neither Samantha nor S. Darko wishes to be who they are, so any good qualities they have are obscured.