Apr 30, 2020
S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale (2009)
S. Darko is the direct-to-DVD sequel to Donnie Darko, writer-director Richard Kelly’s mystifying tale of teenage existentialism with a time travel bent. Hardly anyone saw the first film in theaters, but apparently the DVD sold well enough over the years to warrant a sequel. Just one problem: Richard Kelly wanted no part of it.
When news originally broke that a sequel was being made without the involvement of Kelly, Donnie Darko fans were outraged, but for my part, I tried to keep an open mind. I don’t believe any film is above having a sequel, regardless of whether it’s a “cult classic”, or the work of an “auteur” or not. And as should be made abundantly clear by the episode of Mr. Mendo’s Hack Attack I wrote a while back, I never found Donnie Darko all that worthy of the cult classic label in the first place. I give Kelly all the credit in the world for being ambitious, but the film’s take on teen suburban angst is about as deep as Ferris Bueller, and there’s a huge difference between being a brilliant filmmaker and intentionally leaving out crucial information to make people think you’re brilliant.
So I really had no reservations about the existence of S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale. The original film surely had enough unanswered questions to provide enough interesting material for a sequel, right?
Well, Darko fans, I’m here to tell you that your rage was justified. Even as a direct-to-DVD low-budget sequel released with zero fanfare, S. Darko is an abomination. It’s a rare sequel that actually makes me start to like the previous movie in retrospect.
For all its shortcomings, at least Donnie was something the filmmakers poured their hearts into, and Kelly was blessed with an amazing cast that believed in the material. I appreciate that film so much more, now that I see what it might have been like with cheap special effects, subpar acting from the stars of Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill and Step Up 2: The Streets, and a director with no clue what story he wanted to tell.
The central character of S. Darko is Donnie’s little sister Samantha, played once again by Daveigh Chase, who had about three lines in the original (and who’s also known for playing Samara and having even fewer lines). Chase is now 18 and beautiful, but she gives a truly dire lead performance. (Though, I’m willing to lay the blame at the director’s feet for not giving her any actual direction, seeing as how there have been no complaints about her voice work as Lilo.)
She does that thing that a lot of women her age do, which is to say everything like it’s a question? And arbitrarily raise her voice on the last word of every sentence? Most of her performance is like that? Clearly, she was only brought on board to provide the one direct link to the original movie.
At the start, we’re told in a lengthy expositional crawl that Samantha ran away from home, in part due to her brother’s death seven years ago. And now, she and her bitchy best friend are driving across country for unclear reasons. Their car breaks down, leaving them stranded in a small town called Conejo Springs (conejo being Spanish for “rabbit”—and watch out for that anvil) where the rest of the film takes place.
Our first clue that some of Donnie’s weirdness has rubbed off on Samantha happens at a motel, when she wakes up in the middle of the night, reaches into a TV screen, and pulls out a glowing feather. She then appears to one of the townsfolk, a schizophrenic veteran of the first Gulf War known as “Iraq Jack”, played by a Jake Gyllenhaal clone named James Lafferty. Samantha, all done up in corpse-like makeup, warns Jack that the world is going to end in 4 days, 17 hours, 26 minutes, and 31 seconds.
Yes, for some reason, Samantha is now taking on the “Frank” role, as in, the guy in the evil bunny rabbit suit who appeared as a vision to Donnie in the first movie. What’s more, Samantha wakes up with no memory of this happening, though the film doesn’t make this clear. Regardless, just like Donnie avoiding a falling jet engine, Samantha’s warning allows Jack to evade certain death due to, of all things, a crashing meteorite.
From there, things get even more bizarre. Twilight star Jackson Rathbone plays a nerdy guy (as in, Hollywood Nerdy, of course) who takes the meteorite home, and discovers it contains new elements never seen before by man. On top of that, the meteorite causes huge boils to erupt all over his skin, which never becomes important.
Meanwhile, Iraq Jack keeps receiving visions from corpse-like Samantha, and just like Donnie was commanded to burn down Patrick Swayze’s house, Jack is told to burn down a church. And then it turns out Jack is the grandson of Roberta Sparrow AKA “Grandma Death” from the first film, and for no particular reason, he flexes his metallurgical skills and creates his own evil bunny rabbit mask.
Oh, but I haven’t told you the really weird part: Elizabeth Berkley is in this, in a grand total of three scenes. She’s always holding a book called “Jesusonomy” that’s never elaborated upon, and talking about her personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who she describes as “big, tan, with lots of muscles” (The Rock is Jesus?). Well, at least she can rest easy at night knowing she finally made a movie worse than Showgirls.
From what I can tell, the filmmakers saw Donnie Darko and decided it was really about random things happening for no reason. Their follow-up story has no particular plot or sense of direction. You could start watching at pretty much any point in the movie and it wouldn’t make a difference.
And every reference to Donnie Darko made me roll my eyes harder than the last. There’s a party scene shot in one long take, which is mostly slow-mo with short bursts of speed, just like the “Head Over Heels” sequence in the first movie. It even has a repeat of the Reagan Mask trampoline shot, as if that’s the one thing people remember about the first movie.
On top of that, Samantha carries around a copy of The Philosophy of Time Travel, even though the altered timeline means Donnie never got it from Noah Wyle in the first place. There’s another scene of two people sitting in a movie theater and having their visions appear on the screen. We get a return of Samantha’s “Last Unicorn” story, now retroactively framed as being prophetic—You see, Samantha is the princess of the story, and Iraq Jack’s real name in Justin! Now it all makes sense!
Actually, I take back my earlier statement. It’s clear the filmmakers saw Donnie Darko, and literally no other movie ever made.
There’s a moment where we’re led to believe the film has killed off its title character at the 45-minute mark. And the only emotion this provokes is ennui. Somehow, her bitchy friend is able to travel back in time to sacrifice herself for Samantha. Then Iraq Jack travels back in time and allows himself to get hit by that meteor, bringing everybody back to life. I guess. Honestly, the film could have ended with the whole world exploding into tiny soap bubbles and I probably would have just shrugged.
Instead, the movie ends with a shower of flaming meteors hitting the town. Except, these are actually tesseracts (four-dimensional cubes) from outer space, which briefly transform into flaming CGI eagles before crashing to the ground.
…I’d love to make sense of it all, I really would, but after all the internet research I had to do to understand Donnie Darko, I’ll be damned if I’m going to invest the same amount of time and effort into this piece of crap.
The original film took place in 1988, so it should only follow that S. Darko takes place in 1995. But other than a brief glimpse of the OJ Simpson trial on TV, there’s virtually no effort put forth into making it look like 1995. While the original film’s soundtrack was filled with ‘80s classics from the likes of Tears for Fears and Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen, the only ‘90s song the makers of S. Darko could afford was Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic”. Also, keep an eye out for all the mid-2000s model cars on the road, and a moment where Bitchy Friend uses the term “tramp stamp” five years before it was invented. She should have just referenced Twitter while she was at it.
At the time this movie was released, there were some rumblings about a potential third film in the series, but nothing since. Perhaps the rights-holders came to the realization that there are only two ways to follow up Donnie Darko: Create a sequel that explains everything, retroactively ruining the first film, or create a movie that keeps the mystery going by explaining nothing, and thus has no reason to exist. Guess which option the makers of S. Darko went with. I’m still not convinced that a good Donnie Darko sequel is impossible, but attempting one definitely seems like a no-win situation.