I feel somewhat confident in saying that most of you reading this know someone — or are someone — who has watched Donnie Darko over and over again. Maybe as your go-to late night stoner flick, or as your midnight movie date, or as something you watched over and over again trying to tease out the answers from Richard Kelly’s story.
Donnie Darko was that movie you or I finally stumbled upon on DVD or at the one arty film theater in town that would play a film about metaphysics and a giant bunny. As Salon.com points out in its excellent article ‘Everything you were afraid to ask about Donnie Darko,’ just over a month after 9/11 was an exceptionally poor time to release a movie featuring a jet engine falling from the sky. Salon.com posted its article in 2004 just as the DD director’s cut was about to drop, which was itself another hotly debated issue among fans, as some felt it spoonfed viewers the answers to Richard Kelly’s twisty tale.
With such an obsessive fan base, it stands to reason that someone out there would want to see what happened to, I don’t know, Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen Ross (BUST cover girl Jena Malone) or his teacher Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) or creepy Jim Cunningham (The Swayze). And there would be just as many people who were just fine knowing that the world of Donnie Darko was still moseying along in its own tangential universe.
It would also be very, very easy for a fan of Donnie Darko to relentlessly pick apart S. Darko, a straight-to-DVD release that Richard Kelly had nothing to do with. Nathan Atkins’s screenplay is about Donnie’s little sister Samantha and how she’s doing seven years after his death. The short answer: not so hot. The long answer: she sleepwalks (in scanty shorts and tank tops), she has screwed-up dreams, and she and her sneering alterna-chick best friend’s plans for a cross-country road trip have been derailed by car problems so they’re stuck in the small, dusty city of Conejo Springs, Utah. Naturally, strange things are afoot in Conejo Springs, like the local war vet everyone thinks is the culprit behind the local kids gone missing, or the meteorite that falls from the sky once Samantha and her friend Corey arrive.
Gossip Girl‘s Ed Westwick is the brother of one of the missing kids; he’s got the look of a James Dean greaser, complete with cigarettes rolled up in his shirtsleeve, a big shiny car, and an empty brain pan. Twilight‘s Jackson Rathbone is a local science geek who buys the meteor or whatever it is that’s fallen from the sky and is trying to sweetly woo Samantha. Rathbone is probably really cute in real life but not only is he the creepiest vampire of the Cullen/Hale clan, in S. Darko he’s got giant glasses, long, greasy hair, a weird preppy/dorky wardrobe, and really bad social skills. There’s also the local pervy priest, his Jesus-freak girlfriend (an awesome cameo by Elizabeth ‘VerSAYCE’ Berkley), a mechanic named Frank, and a motel owner/science geek played by John Hawkes, from Me and You and Everyone We Know, Wristcutters: A Love Story, and Eastbound and Down.
S. Darko has many elements from the first movie, so much so that it’s obvious Atkins is as much of a fan of the original as anyone else. The problem is that anyone who hasn’t seen Donnie Darko wouldn’t know what the hell was going on in S. Darko, and anyone who has would spend the whole time being aggravated trying to figure out the muddy parallels and connections between the two movies. S. Darko uses cheap plot tricks where Donnie has its own internal logic and laws.
But the biggest problem is that its purported main character is passive and flat. Things happen around her or perhaps because of her, but Samantha doesn’t really do much of anything. The female characters Kelly wrote were interesting, smart, and three-dimensional, and so were the men. With one or two exceptions, none of the characters in S. Darko are at all intriguing or even intelligent (especially Westwick’s character; he’s so dumb that it’s painful to watch).
Despite it all, there are some good moments in S. Darko — unfortunately, revealing them would spoil the plot. But hey, the music is good. There’s really no way to complete with a soundtrack that was like a psychic probe into every good mix tape that killed you inside, but S. Darko managed to snap up some great stuff like Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins. So it’s got that going for it.
— Jenni Miller