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S. Darko

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/02/09 22:38:50

"Can I live in the tangent universe that doesn't have this movie?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Donnie Darko” was not a great movie, but it was certainly wildly original, deeply personal, and unquestionably intelligent, a complex labor of love for writer/director Richard Kelly. Which makes the notion of a sequel embarrassing in its stupidity - you can’t take something like this and churn out a quickie cash grab follow-up like it’s “American Pie 6.”

But there is no stopping Hollywood greed, so now we get “S. Darko,” a direct-to-video effort aimed at attracting the original’s rabid cult following. I feel sorry for writer Nathan Atkins and director Chris Fisher, both given the unenviable assignment of co-opting Kelly’s distinctive vision into something familiar enough to repeat what attracted viewers the first time yet dissimilar enough, since most of the characters can’t be reused. It’s classic idiot thinking: hey, we can just cut-and-paste the time travel and creepy bunny suit stuff into a new story, and it’ll be a hit! The producers forget that “Darko” succeeded because it was new and different, two things a sequel usually can’t be.

The lone returning cast member is Daveigh Chase, once again playing Donnie’s little sister Samantha. After some opening text explaining why the rest of the cast didn’t bother showing up, we see a disenfranchised Sam, now a grumpy teen in the post-grunge world of 1995, on a road trip through the American west with pal Corey (Briana Evigan). They’re a mopey duo, all navel gazing and sweaty designer jeans-commercial posing. (Fisher takes full advantage of Chase’s new maturity, as the leads sulk around in skimpy attire and greasy hair straight out of a Calvin Klein ad. It’s creepier than anything the story itself can conjure, essentially selling the film with “Hey, remember the little girl from the first movie? Look how hot she is now!” Ick.)

They wind up in a small town in the middle of the desert after their car breaks down; it’s there they’ll spend the next week living through crummy reworkings of plot points from the first movie: visions appear, as do those time tunnel thingies, and a crazed Gulf War vet named “Iraq Jack” (James Lafferty) builds himself a bunny suit (this time out of metal) when he receives a vision that the world will end on July 4.

Atkins’ screenplay tries oh so very, very hard to put a new spin on Kelly’s themes without getting too obvious, and I admire the way he refuses to make Sam the lone focus of inner pain here. Rather than just rerun Donnie’s story through his sister, Atkins allows other characters to partake in the whole Tangent Universe/Living Receiver stuff. There’s even a clever attempt to shift the focus away from Sam completely mid-movie, taking us on unexpected routes. Through this, Fisher manages to create an eerie, melancholy mood that fits well with the tone of the older film.

But it never holds. The script can’t quite get its finger on what made the original “Darko” work, leaving everything here a pale imitation, an off-the-mark interpretation. Worse, Atkins’ efforts to get inventive with the plotting are too quickly undone by lame “gotcha” gimmickry, and the script eventually just gives up and tosses us a note-for-note retelling of original plot points - right down to the familiar thoughtful montage of “people thinking deeply” at the end.

The real killer, however, is that “S. Darko” is deadly dull. It’s a go-nowhere story that relies less on philosophy and more on teens walking around and doing nothing. We get a heap of “colorful” characters for Sam and Corey to meet, but they’re all boring and uninspired in their quirks: the oddball nerd, the thoughtful greaser, the religious fanatic. (The latter is played by Elizabeth Berkley in a bit of stunt casting that tries so hard to match the original film’s unique lineup of familiar faces.)

Atkins’ dialogue is as laughable as it is boring, leaving all these characters to be walking chunks of overwrought cliché and awkward pretentiousness. The cast is uniformly terrible - Chase’s monotone performance is the worst offender - but I can’t imagine anyone could get much success out of such lines as “How do you explain midgets and sock monkeys? I don’t know. Shit happens.”

With every line, you can hear the writer struggling to Sound Really Deep and Stuff. He’s listened to Kelly’s screenplay and wants so very much to produce monologues that capture the same blend of introspection and satire. Yet all we get are scenes like the one where the creepy pastor (Matthew Davis) gives Sam a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet, as if we’re supposed to chuckle to ourselves knowingly, thinking how much cooler we are than those squares.

There’s just no heart in “S. Darko,” no unique vision, no brave imagination. It wants to echo the original but can’t figure out the rhythms. We get brooding but no emotion, sci-fi but no creativity. It’s a dumbed-down remake by people who don’t quite understand the original and figure hey, this is close enough. Fans will be furious, and everyone else will be just plain bored.

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