By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009 12:00 AM
The blogosphere has not been kind to "S. Darko," the sequel to the beloved, bewildering 2001 mindbend-athon that was "Donnie Darko." How unkind? Take this comment posted on a recent Cinematical item that mentioned the arrival of the straight-to-DVD flick: "Every single human being involved in the making of this movie needs to leap headfirst into a volcano."
Okay, so that's a tad extreme. But it does say something about the degree of devotion fans still feel for the mad, wormhole-laden world that writer-director Richard Kelly created in the original "Darko," a thriller/sci-fi/teen comedy hybrid that launched Jake Gyllenhaal's career, developed an international cult following via midnight movie screenings and DVD viewings, and currently sits at No. 128 on imdb.com's list of the top 250 movies of all time.
Given the fact that Kelly, who does not own the rights to "Donnie Darko," has publicly stated that he was not involved in the sequel, it's understandable that so many fanboys and girls are taking a volcano-jumping stance about "S. Darko," which arrives today on DVD ($22.98) and Blu-ray ($29.99). Of course, if they are anything like me, they may find it a challenge to avoid watching this continuation of the previous tangent-universe saga. Curiosity allegedly kills cats, but sometimes it also makes people buy or rent DVDs against their better judgment.
Let me deliver the good news first: "S. Darko" is not the schlocky production many may be expecting. Visually, director Chris Fisher and cinematographer Marvin V. Rush do a lovely job of capturing the endless blue skies and mountainous landscapes of Utah, where the film was shot. They also have assembled an eclectic, interesting cast that includes Daviegh Chase (reprising her role from the first film as Donnie's little sister and Sparkle Motion dance troupe member Samantha Darko), Ed Westwick of "Gossip Girl," Jackson Rathbone from "Twilight," acting veteran John Hawkes ("You and Me and Everyone We Know") and a barely recognizable Elizabeth Berkely, who ditches her "Showgirls" alter ego to play a disturbingly devout Bible thumper.
Now, the bad news: The story "S. Darko" tells is just as derivative and empty as all those skeptical bloggers and their commenters feared. Instead of Donnie, our protagonist is Donnie's sister Sam (Chase), who has left behind the suburbs of Virginia to hit the road with her perpetually navel-bearing friend Corey (Briana Evigan). After their car breaks down, they find themselves stuck in a small Utah town, at which point pretty much every concept and theme previously explored in "Donnie Darko" -- a pending apocalyptic event, deceased individuals communicating with the living, really freaky rabbit imagery -- are regurgitated and revisited, but with less humor, ominous foreshadowing and sense of style. Fisher even flat-out imitates Kelly's camera work in certain scenes, a move the "S. Darko" director characterizes during the DVD's commentary track as a hat tip to his predecessor, but that actually comes across as petty, cult-classic thievery.
The "Darko" faithful are better off skipping the movie entirely and devoting their attention to the making-of featurette and the commentary track with Fisher, Rush and screenwriter Nathan Atkins, who finally get a chance to explain their decision to make this follow-up. (The deleted scenes and the other featurette, on the other hand? Definitely skippable.)
Ironically, even Fisher doesn't seem to have a handle on "S. Darko's" reason for being. "It's still a fun movie to think about," Fisher notes at one point during the commentary. "Whether it makes any sense or not, I'm not sure."
For his part, Atkins makes it clear that he is a big fan of the original and therefore approached this project with some hesitation. But he expresses hope that Kelly (and, presumably, the fans) will realize that "we were earnestly trying to pay homage to ['Donnie Darko'] while also doing our own thing." To borrow a phrase from the movie that spawned this controversial straight-to-DVD affair, I don't doubt Atkins's commitment to Sparkle Motion. But I have little faith that the moviegoers who once fell in love with Kelly's unique take on teen alienation will see "S. Darko" as anything more than a very minor pop cultural footnote.