Spoiler warning for all of Richard Kelly's films as well as S. Darko.
It's funny how short a time things can change in. Back in 2009 when The Box was released I said to myself "I liked Donnie Darko and Southland Tales* but The Box is an adaptation so it won't be a true Richard Kelly film." These days, I cover so many adaptations, I know better. While certain directors may choose to strictly cover the original subject matter, many put their own touches into the story. And in this case I was way off, seeing as how the original story is very short to begin with, Kelly had to add more. And add he did, and very much in the same style he's employed in his other films.
I have now seen all three films, and I feel different ways about all of them. They all have common threads and common methods yet the only one in which I feel all the pieces came together properly is Donnie Darko. The story is a good one, one that manages to touch upon feelings of teenage angst and insecurity and blending it well with science fiction and a hero's tale. It's not perfect. There are still open questions despite the fact that I've watched the film multiple times, and a couple things that don't sit quite right with me. But very few films are perfect, and the fact remains it's a great one.
Southland Tales is a mess. I gave it far too much the benefit of the doubt the first time I saw it. It's got a great cast and soundtrack and it's shot well, but the story just doesn't work, and on multiple levels. No repeated viewings or extra material like the comics are going to help it. He may have had a good idea once but he bloated it out into a monster and destroyed it. Listen to our Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange episode to hear us explain in greater depth.
And then there is The Box. Its original basis is a Richard Matheson story called "Button, Button." A poor couple is offered a large sum of money if they will push a button and kill "someone they don't know." The concept alone is a great moral question that forces you to ask yourself if you'd do it or not. Answering it in story form can get a little more complicated. The story was also made into a Twilight Zone episode, and all three answered the question in different ways.
In the original story, the wife pushes the button and her husband ends up dying. The twist, you see, is whether she ever truly knew her husband at all. It's fairly clever, and works in a short story format. Not really satisfying for film though, so it makes sense to me that both adaptations went in a different direction. For the Twilight Zone episode, the wife pushes the button, and the man comes to take it away, assuring them that it will be reprogrammed and given to "someone they don't know." Once again, very clever, and a great way to end a Twilight Zone episode.
In his own adaptation, Kelly acknowledges both of these prior versions. The husband, Arthur, flat out asks his wife Norma how well she knows him, and she says she knows him better than herself. For added measure she's also asked how well she knows her son, and she says she knows him even better. After the button is pushed, the man says the same phrase as was said in the Twilight Zone episode, but now we get to see how things play out. And this is Kelly, so we get a trans-dimensional explanation about how someone out there is basically using all this to judge humanity and whether or not we are worthy. It's a better attempt at that story idea than the The Day the Earth Stood Still remake that came out the year before, but I guess that's not saying too much, is it?
The main issue I have is that the movie takes a pretty damning view of humanity, particularly of women. Technically, the wife making the choice to push the button comes from the original story, but there's no reason Kelly couldn't have changed that, nor did he have to make it so that all three times we see a couple given the choice, it is always the wife that does it. So really he's not just saying humanity is selfish, he's saying women are. While I follow Norma's reasoning, and she's certainly been manipulated into a desperate situation that would point her toward that choice, Arthur's in the same position and yet is always the one who wants to prevent it or afterward put a stop to it.
On top of the choice to kill a person, these couples are also given the choice to live with their child disabled or die and heal them. I suppose this one is a little more grey, and could possibly be seen as noble if you wanted to pin it that way - Norma loves her son enough to give up her life to let him live a "normal" life. But you can also see it as she can't face the fact of living with a disabled child and would rather die instead. Since in this version Norma has her own disability (granted a fairly minor one that isn' t outwardly noticeable beyond a limp) it paints her perspective on the situation. She's suffered because of her disability, and she doesn't want her own son to suffer, especially because of choices she made. But the fact remains that allowing her husband to shoot her means he's going to jail and therefore her son may be able to see and hear but he's growing up without his parents. And then you add the compound idea that if the next couple hadn't pushed the button Norma wouldn't have died. But no, women are cold and callous creatures who don't care about anyone outside their family so down she goes.
Contrast this to Donnie Darko, who sacrifices himself to save his family, his girlfriend, and the world. Donnie's visions lead him to learn about time travel and tangent universes so that he can recognize the signs when the opportunity arises. It's a willing gift of self sacrifice so that his sisters and Gretchen can have a better life. Even Southland Tales, in its muddled way, was trying to portray a sense of hope at the end, where Taverner learns to forgive himself. But apparently after having two films that didn't do as well as he hoped Kelly just decided life was shit and we were all doomed.
So if Kelly wasn't capable of holding on to his own ideas, it is probably far too much to assume that someone else would be able to take away the right things from Donnie Darko and make an appropriate sequel. I purposefully set my expectations really low for S. Darko before watching it, and yeah, I got what I expected.
Much like Kelly trying to channel David Lynch in Southland Tales and missing the mark, screenwriter Nathan Atkins and director Chris Fisher scooped out a lot of elements from the original film, but removed any form of soul or depth in the process. A slightly different bunny mask appears, supposedly based on a drawing Donnie did, but that's big mistake number one - Donnie didn't draw Frank until he started having visions, and that only happened in the tangent universe. Frank had drawings of his planned Halloween costume, but we're specifically told the drawing was Donnie's. The "manipulated dead" tell the living what to do, there's time travel, and we see those liquid tubes coming out of people's chests showing them where to go, but it all has the feel that they only had a slight understanding on how it all worked. I'll admit not all of Kelly's explanations are perfect and could probably be changed a little, but the fact is that just including these things is not enough to build a good story in this universe.
Making Sam lost and confused in the years following her brother's death is a good starting point. Having her still want to be a dancer is a little far fetched - lots of little girls perform in those types of dance teams without that being their future career choice - but it works well enough. The problem is that beyond these two elements, we know nothing about Sam. Daveigh Chase has acting talent, but she's not given enough to work with and is largely going through the motions here. I have a feeling she was just as unsure of her character's motivations as I was.
The characters in the town she and her friend end up lost in are just as poorly defined. I don't see any of the connection between Sam and Corey that supposedly compelled them to drive across country together in the first place. Ed Westwick looks so much like Robert Pattinson here that I can't help but think they were trying to build some kind of strange love triangle brooding romance between Randy, Sam, and the nerdy Jeremy, but it's all executed poorly, and then they stick in Justin and the subplot with the priest for good measure.
The priest is there because he's kidnapping little boys (why? The film doesn't care to tell us) and to mirror the fact that the motivational speaker/child molester got away in the first film. But letting a guy with child porn hidden in his house get away is a little different than allowing a child to die, so it comes off much worse. Not to mention that the guy apparently has a prior jail record yet no one in the town suspects him to begin with? He also hands Sam a book called "Jesusonomy" which she never once cracks open. It's possible there was a deleted scene that explained this, but the fact remains there's no explanation in the film.
But as I said earlier, Donnie's sacrifice had a purpose. In this film, while we primarily follow along with Sam for most of the film (even when she's temporarily dead, the perspective switches to Corey's attempt to bring her back) and yet the person who makes the sacrifice is Justin. Justin is essentially the Roberta Sparrow stand in for this story, not only because he's her grandson (because why not) but because he's crazy, muttering to himself all the time. Everyone in town blames him for the disappearance of the kids, even before Sam shows up in town. Yet when he dies just as she arrives in the new timeline, everyone feels bad for him. That doesn't really make sense.
I could go on, but much like trying to dissect why things happen in Southland Tales, it's largely a useless exercise. The film tried to cram in as many similarities to the original film as possible, but neglected to make characters worth caring about. It also lacks any kind of sense of humor. About the only time it comes close to properly getting the feel of the original film is in the music sequences. While the songs aren't anywhere near as iconic as Kelly's 80s choices, they do a good job of invoking mood. Unfortunately, it's the only part of the film that grabbed me at all.