Richard Kelly, the creator of the cult classic Donnie Darko has nothing to do with this Direct to DVD sequel. All I can say is "THANK GOD". I liked the original Donnie released back in 2001 quite a bit though perhaps not as much as some college freshmen who thought it was some kind of religious experience they had between tokes. But I did think that Richard Kelly discovered an interesting hook to make David Lynch styled movies for a larger pop audience by focusing on the subtext of teen angst. The film was a clever amalgamation of John Hughes, J.D. Salinger and Phillip K. Dick all wrapped up in an everyday surrealism very reminiscent of Lynch's work in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Now, why Kelly couldn't just leave well enough alone is another mystery wrapped inside an enigma. He did the unfortunate thing of going back to his well received first film to create one of those horrific "Director's Cuts" that have plagued mankind since the dawn of the DVD extra (Damn you Ridley Scott and your 9,000 versions of Blade Runner!). Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut released in 2004 was supposedly the film Kelly wanted to make all along. Going for a 2010: The Year We Make Contact approach rather than sticking with the glorious ambiguity of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kelly went ahead and tried to provide explanations for every damn thing in his movie. Replacing my own interesting possibilities of what might've happened to poor young Donnie with his own awful and very specific sci-fi mumbo jumbo about Tangent Universes, Living Receivers, and the Manipulated Dead. Bad enough on its own, it was just a precursor for the epic dystopian mumbo jumbo to come in his dead on arrival Southland Tales a few years later. Kelly's first film now seems to have been a accident of sorts, one of the few times where studio imposed cuts actually made the film better.
Unfortunately even though Richard Kelly isn't involved, S. Darko is the kind of film that limps right out of the gate since it really has no reason to exist in the first place. Donnie told a very self contained story and any attempt to come up with new ideas would seem to defy the mythology created in the original. In other words, this film should be as awful as expected. But while it isn't exactly good-it's a lot better than you might imagine, though that may seem like nothing but heresy to the converted.
The film has one strong link to the original in returning cast member Daveigh Chase. Chase reprises her role as the youngest member of the Darko clan and former member of Sparkle Motion. Samantha, who is now 18 years old and apparently running away from her emotionally broken family to travel across country with her bitchy best friend Corey (Briana Evigan). Their car breaks down in a wasteland of a town in the middle of Utah and while they wait for it to be repaired by local rebel without a cause Randy (Ed Westwick), Samantha begins to realize that her brother was not the only Darko to be a guardian of the apocalypse. She has her own terrible visions about the end of the world and about the role a local Gulf War veteran (James Lafferty) is to play in it. He believes the world will end in 4 days, July 4th, 1995 to be exact.
This entire project seems to sweat from the exertion of its writer Nathan Atkins and director Chris Fisher to do something-anything-to make the film worthwhile. So, in trying so hard to capture the feel of the original film they end up losing its best qualit: its breeziness. Kelly's film seemed to know just where it was going and was able to allow the story to build on its own without the forced mechanism that can be felt here. There's too much respect for Kelly's film as the conception mirrors the original almost point for point. Amid the town of quirky characters we even get two versions of Patrick Swayze's character from the original with a predictably hypocritical minister (Matthew Davis) and a fire and brimstone religious zealot (Elizabeth Berkely). The appearance of a bunny mask and a scene set in an empty movie theater also seem tacked on for no other reason than to invoke memories of the earlier film. All of these elements do nothing but make you remember how much better they were used by Kelly.
That said, there are some interesting things here which will be ignored by those too willing to write it off as a ripoff. First of all, S. Darko is beautifully shot by cinematographer Marvin V. Rush using the new RED Digital Cameras. He makes great use of Utah locations to create a sense of vast, cosmic space surrounding Chase, who looks like a lost rag doll being blown by the wind. The production values are larger than expected from a DVDquel and the cast is excellent. Director Fisher does a good job of creating moody montages linking various characters together with the very Phillip Glass/Clint Mansell like score by Ed Harcourt and this makes what could've seemed like an episodic and broken narrative much more unified.
But the most interesting thing happens in Nathan Atkins' script. This may be a spoiler, you've been warned. Now read on!
He does the not so unusual Psycho trick of knocking off the main character in the middle of the film, leaving us to refocus our sympathies onto the supporting characters. But he then goes one step further and brings Samantha back after a strange, dislocating 15 minute interlude. The way he does this is very intriguing and helps to play into the film's hallucinatory feel as characters shift places and are seen repeating the same actions only differently.
These are perhaps not the most compelling reasons to pick up a DVD, but believe me there are far worse movies out there than S. Darko. Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut for one.
S. Darko premieres on DVD with an excellent transfer in anamorphic widescreen and a bevy of extras. The sound is in 5.1 Dolby and though it's not a complex mix, the effects track and music score are well enough done to complement the visuals. A French language track is provided as are subtitles in Spanish. English and French subtitles are also available if you can read those languages better than hearing them.
There is a single theme running though all of the extras and it's the repeated question of why everyone felt it was worthwhile to revisit the Darko story. Methinks they doth protest too much! Certainly the success of Donnie Darko on DVD provided the business reason for making the sequel. In the "Making of S. Darko" featurette, writer Nathan Atkins seems like he's going to have a mental breakdown as he trips over one apology after another to the fans of the original and seems to be sweating bullets at the thought of having to run into Richard Kelly one day. Director Chris Fisher comes off the best here as he seems genuinely interested in the script's specific challenges narratively. Everyone else is clear that the project seemed fun and after all, they gotta eat.
"Utah Too Much" is one of those mysterious extras that you click on wondering what the hell will be awaiting you on the other side. Here we get an initially witty but soon way overlong look at the recording of a country song by veteran character actor John Hawkes and some of the cast while wasting time in their motel room during production. The song and lyrics are witty enough but after about 2 minutes of this it's back to the DVD menu for me.
The "Deleted Scenes" are a collection of moments featuring an actress and character basically cut out of the story who appears to have been the troubled girlfriend of Randy played by Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick. A few other deleted scenes feature Elizabeth Berkely doing more of the same we see in the movie. What we saw was more than enough.
The trailer is a decent presentation of the film's basic story as well as giving a taste of the mood while the filmmaker's commentary track focuses heavily on the demands of production and the freedom of the RED digital camera to speed up shooting and allow for more takes. Director Fisher talks about the challenges of shooting a story where the protagonist seems to die in the middle of the film and how he and the editor put together an alternate version without the sequence. The hectic nature of production is demonstrated as Fisher on the track says he hopes his instincts were right as he has still not seen the final version. Which I assume is unfolding in front of him during the commentary. Very strange. Still, I have to say that it did work and elevated what was clearly a bad idea from the beginning into something worth watching-at least at 2am on cable TV.