I truly expected to hate S.Darko. I mean totally loathe it with every fiber of my being. It wasn't just because it was a sequel to Donnie Darko - a film for which the idea of a sequel was absurd - but because I'd seen the trailers, and it just looked...well...bad. It looked worse than bad; it looked cheap. For me, the only thing that could be worse than making a bad sequel to a movie that I love is to make a cheap bad sequel. That's akin to eating a prime rib and lobster dinner and having a Klondike bar for dessert. It's just...wrong.
I was opposed to the very idea of this film from the start, so when the Blu-ray landed in my lap, I was hesitant to even put it in the player. Once the movie started, however, I noticed something; it didn't look cheap at all. As a matter of fact, it looked rather nice. It looked better than nice. It looked beautiful. After a few minutes, I found myself sucked in by not only the imagery, but the hypnotic soundtrack, and, maybe a little embarrassingly, the sad-yet-thoroughly-gorgeous visage of the titular character, Samantha Darko (Daveigh Chase, looking smoking hot reprising her role from the first film, and young enough to be my daughter...yikes!). As the pieces of the story fell into place, I shook my head in disbelief. I was actually liking this.
S.Darko opens with a gorgeous montage of sweeping southwestern vistas before settling upon the now 17 year old Sam Darko as she lays on her back and welcomes the rising sun. It's July, 1995, and Sam and her friend, Corey (Briana Evigan), are driving cross country from Virginia to California, where Corey's father owns a "club" where the two hope to become dancers. Sam's leaving Virginia to escape the downward spiral her family's gone into since brother Donnie's death, while Corey, it seems, just doesn't have anything better to do.
The pair's car breaks down near a small desert town, and a handsome young local named Randy (Ed Westwick) volunteers to fix it for them. Before checking into the local motel, Sam and Corey take in the sites, meeting an assortment of local weirdos, including jailbird-turned-minister, Pastor John (Matthew Davis), his overzealous heterochromic gal-pal, Trudy (Elizabeth Berkley), and Officer O'Dell (Brett Roberts). They also learn that a child has gone missing, and Officer O'Dell's chief suspect is the junkyard-dwelling "Iraq Jack" (James Lafferty) - a young Gulf war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Later that night, Iraq Jack receives a visit from a ghastly specter of Sam, dressed in a prom gown, with a massive wound on the side of her head. She warns him that the world's end is approaching, and, just prior to a meteorite destroying the windmill in which he lives, whisks him to safety. This undead Sam (he calls her "the princess") continues to visit Jack, while the living Sam drifts around town impatiently awaiting the repair of their car, and questioning whether or not leaving Virginia was such a good idea in the first place. From here on out, the film takes a few surprising turns, as mysteries unfold only to raise new questions, culminating in an ending that is as poignant and moving as it is baffling.
In other words, it's a lot like Donnie Darko.
Now I'm not going to pretend S.Darko is even half the mind-bending classic its predecessor was, but I will say that, thanks in great part to expectations that were about as low as they can get, the film did impress me. I expected the sort of flat "shot on HD video" aesthetic of the usual direct-to-DVD detritus, but was instead treated to stunning cinematography and a visually pleasing cinematic quality that belied the film's budgetary restraints. The acting is solid across the boards, with standout performances by newcomers, Westwick (who's a dead ringer for Joaquin Phoenix, sans the hair lip), and Lafferty, and an exceptional turn by Jackson Rathbone as the obsessive nerd, Jeremy. Heck, even Elizabeth Berkley's good in her limited screen time!
Director, Chris Fisher, recycles many of the camera tricks and techniques Richard Kelly employed in his film, apparently to remind us that we are, in fact, watching a sequel to that film. We get the ample amounts of slow motion, time lapse photography, sped up frame rates, etc. The thing is, they work. The film looks a lot like Donnie Darko. I mean, it's not quite as polished, but, considering the budget, it's damned close. The CGI effects are a bit sketchy, but they work in the context of the scenes they're in, as Fisher lends said scenes an almost surreal, almost dreamlike, visual quality that's quite appealing.
Finally, what really, completely won me over was the film's soundtrack. Chock full of great nuggets from the 90's, including "The Carnival is Over" by Dead Can Dance, The Cocteau Twins "Heaven or Las Vegas", Whale's "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe", and a host of others, some implemented into their respective scenes with goosebump-raising effect (I was especially moved by the sequence which employed Catherine Wheels' "Black Metallic").
S.Darko arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Fox, and sports a very nice, 1.78:1 1080p transfer that offers bold, rich colors, excellent contrast, and an above-average amount of detail. This one looks as good as many of the films I've seen on the medium, which is quite an achievement considering its meager budget. Blacks are deep and true, adding depth and dimensionality to certain scenes, and lending them a three-dimensional quality that I found very impressive indeed.
The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is superb, with blistering highs and throbbing lows, and crystal clear dialogue throughout. The film's soundtrack and score come across beautifully, with many of these classic cuts sounding better than I've ever heard them. Surround effects are well implemented and immersive, and ambient noise is natural and all-encompassing. The film's denouement, involving a meteor shower raining down upon the small town (it's in the trailers, kids. I didn't spoil anything. Besides...there's more to it than that!) is a sonic triumph, working the entire soundfield with all manner of sizzles, hisses, and booms. All in all, this is a really impressive audio/visual presentation, and while not quite reference quality stuff, damned near close to it.
Bonus material is limited to a few standard definition featurettes, deleted scenes, and a commentary track. The commentary features director, Fisher, along with writer Nathan Atkins, and cinematographer, Martin Rush, and it moves along at a nice pace, with the three offering up a decent amount of information about the production, its inspiration, and their interpretation of the "Darko universe". It's obvious that these guys loved the source material, and its equally obvious that they didn't envision their film as a cheap cash-in on the Darko name. Give it a listen, especially if you, like me, were wondering just what in the hell was going through their heads when they decided to make this sequel!
The featurettes are less impressive. The standard definition looks lousy, and the information presented within is already pretty well covered by the commentary track. "The Making of S. Darko" is an EPK-like bit of fluff, with cast and crew interviews, while "Utah Too Much" is a quickie look at the "effect" filming in the relative isolation of a backwater Utah town had on the principal players. We also get a collection of deleted scenes, most of which involve Berkley's Trudy character (which is a shame as she's sorely underused in the finished film), and a collection of HD trailers for other Fox Blu-ray releases.
So S.Darko surprised the hell out of me, really. I found myself grinning like a madman over the closing credits, and settled down to write this review both thoroughly jazzed and more than a bit confused. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the film's technical achievements, soundtrack, and the quality performances, but, on the other hand, found the story somewhat trite and derivative of Donnie Darko, and felt its connection to that film was vicarious at best. Oh, and I am still of the mind that a sequel to Donnie Darko was, is, and always will be completely unnecessary. But, for a wholly unnecessary sequel, S. Darko proved quite entertaining, and this solid Blu-ray presentation from Fox merits a rental at the very least.