Honestly, I was and still am a huge Donnie Darko fan, so when I heard the news that a new sequel was in the works that would build off of the original and have Daveigh Chase reprising her role as Samantha Darko, there was a mix of resentment tinged with excitement in my voice when I asked two of the most important questions of the film: “WHY! And… how?”
Well, now that time has come for me to view the film, to pick it apart as if it were a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, and part of me wants to drop all of my reviewing pretenses and shout out that S. Darko need not be compared to Donnie – the age-old dilemma of not comparing brothers and sisters an apt metaphor here, if you will. Donnie Darko was such a cult favorite on its own that to compare its sequel to the original is setting S. Darko up for failure.
Unfortunately, S. Darko‘s direction makes it almost impossible to not bring Donnie’s own story into context, as a lot of the theatrical stylings of the sequel have come straight from the original. Roaming dark clouds act as an interlude between scenes; Roberta Sparrow’s book on time travel again comes into play; similar music plays in the background; the opening sequence to plays out eerily similar to Donnie‘s. This stuff is placed in the film for a reason: to bring about both nostalgia and a similar style, channeling the prior film’s strengths into a familiar yet different arc.
But here’s the thing – S. Darko fails miserably in story, attempting grandiose mountain climbs and only reaching an eighth of the height expected. There’s something to be said for director Chris Fisher‘s high hopes; he seems like he knows the story of Donnie Darko, is familiar with the history and patterns, and even grasps the themes of the original. And what I think his thought processes were goes a little something like this:
“Hey, I love Donnie Darko. I’m an amateur director. Richard Kelly gave us a mind-fuck of a film that’s sort of like an acid trip. I can do this. We can use Samantha Darko from the original, give her the same problems Donnie has. She’ll be older, remembering the past. AND we’ll do it backwards. Instead of having Sam change the future, she’ll be the bringer of bad news to someone else!”
You know, it’s a creative idea. It just doesn’t work that well when the audience is supposed to relate to Samantha as a protagonist and a dead time-traveler. Sam is a whiny dud; she’s not interesting and certainly not compelling enough to garner relations with the audience. Most of her on-screen time is relegated to moping around, shyly talking with friends or following her fate bubble trail. It may sound morbid, but the best Sam is the dead Sam. She’s actually quite creepy in her frazzled hair, dirt-stained dress, and blue complexion. Jump cuts make her move quickly, so we never know where she will be next – but most likely, it’s right in front of the camera.
However, the plot is so muddled that it doesn’t matter if we like Sam or not; we’re going to be spending most of our time in the movie lost, trying to figure out vague plot lines. Whereas Donnie‘s initial ambiguity worked because of the movie’s successful pacing of important plot details, S. Darko has failed to conceive a good ordering of plot events. Instead, it wanders aimlessly around, at times removing certain storylines for a good portion of the film. It makes it even more confusing to understand what is going on, most of which can be blamed on the supposed complexity of trying to incorporate two time-traveling sequences into one film.
Pair that with the fact that S. Darko likes to sidestep major plot points. In a sequence sure to give everyone a grimace and head shake, Sam is walking away from her drunk friend, who has just insulted her in front of some cool guys that the friend is with. The guys think this is harsh and kick the girl out of the car, then drive off drunkenly. Almost instantly, a car smashes into them or something, killing Sam. If I sound a bit unsure of the events, you hit it right on the head. It seems as though a car came out of time and crashed into the guys’ car, which then caromed into Sam. But none of this is shown, nor explained well, and instead of an emotional climax as in Donnie when Gretchen is struck down by Frank’s car, all we’re left with is a scratch of the head and a “Huh? What happened?”
This is the exact sentiment throughout much of the movie, where vague happenings culminate in a less-than-exciting ending that includes asteroids from space crashing into the earth, Sam’s death and revival, and a very limited plot line about religious fanatics kidnapping little boys that includes Jessie from Saved by the Bell (Elizabeth Berkley)! S. Darko takes on a heavy load and doesn’t know what to do with it. When the end comes, it’s hard to piece together why this was such an important story in the first place – was the homeless guy really worth saving? The little boys will never be found, the asteroids may still slam into the earth (although I think we’re supposed to believe that the guy who found it called them from space…), and it makes Sam’s death and her friend’s sacrifice to save her moot.
It’s tough to go into S. Darko knowing how good Donnie was, and if you’re a fan, you might see some light at the end of the tunnel with Sam. But as an honest-to-goodness film, S. Darko deserves its direct-to-DVD release, suffering from a lot of the same flaws that most of those indie films do. An unorganized plot that may have been good had it had some semblance of a better arrangement is what we’re left with, a bitter disappointment of what could have been. But there was a reason that Richard Kelly left it at Donnie’s demise: there’s not much more you can do from that point, because the cat has left the bag. It’s too bad time travel isn’t real; the makers of this film could go back, scrap the film, and get their money back.
An unorganized plot that may have been good had it had some semblance of a better arrangement is what we're left with, a bitter disappointment of what could have been.