Category: Cult Sci-Fi & Fantasy


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If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-

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Discounting Tim Burton’s Batman which rang in the end of the decade, the 1980s were not a kind period for movie adaptations of comic books. Whether it’s the painful to watch bastardization of Frank Castle with Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher or Howard the Duck (which is a regular contender for Worst Film of All Time) or any of the god-awful Superman films from the 80s but especially Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the comic book movies from those days are pretty much all universally horrendous. For a long time I knew that in 1982 Wes Craven had adapted DC fantasy horror comic Swamp Thing into a movie. Alan Moore’s run on the series (after the film had been made) is fairly legendary in the comics world as a writer revitalizing an all but forgotten character into one of the hottest properties of the era, and since I loved both Alan Moore and Wes Craven, I believe that I purposefully added this film to my master blog list (because after watching it, I’m positive it wasn’t nominated for any types of industry awards). Voluntarily subjecting myself to this film was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in ages because without question, this is the worst Wes Craven film I’ve ever watched.

After being sent to supervise a government research project helmed by charming plant geneticist Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), Alice Cable (Carnivale‘s Adrienne Barbeau) is quickly forced on the run when mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) destroys Holland’s lab and apparently kills Holland to steal his work. Though Cable is able to escape, she is pursued by Arcane’s thugs because she possesses Dr. Holland’s final notebook detailing the last steps of his process to essentially solve humanity’s hunger problems with crops that can grow anywhere. As Arcane’s men chase Cable through the treacherous Louisiana swamps, an unlikely savior comes to her side. Mutated into a half-plant/half-man hybrid by the chemicals that everyone thought had killed him, Dr. Holland is now alive and Cable’s protector as a monster with the heart of a human.

This review is going to be really short because this movie is really bad and I’d rather spend my time watching one last episode of Doctor Who before I go to bed than devote 1000 words to this film (though it managed to pull legitimately poetic moments out of its ass from time to time but that’s Wes Craven for you). The plot is completely nonsensical and it fails to capture the fantasy-horror/psychological elements that makes the comics so memorable and is instead a series of action sequences tied together by a borderline incomprehensible plot. The acting is truly terrible as well and everyone seems to be taking pleasure in making things as campy as humanly possible. The special effects are egregiously bad. Understanding that this is 1982 and not everyone has a George Lucas budget to work with, but I had to control my laughter every time I saw Swamp Thing on screen. The editing is also atrocious and whether it’s the silly transitions the film would use for screen swipes or just the general lack of anything tying the events together, the film was a mess. Even the lighting was horrific and there were many moments in the film where it was just too dark to see what was happening and not because that was the director’s intention. I can’t even recommend this film to people who love “so bad they’re good films” because this one is simply so bad it’s terrible.

Final Score: C-