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April 2002
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Lucius Shepard
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Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
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by Lucius Shepard

Dark, Darker, Darko

The way I see it, an unheralded film named Donnie Darko, is hands-down the best science fiction movie in quite a few years.

Granted, this verges on damning with faint praise, but actually it's quite a good picture and deserves a much wider audience than it has received.

Darko was not blessed with a massive budget and features neither spaceships nor ethnically stereotyped aliens nor a comic-book plot nor actors in ape make-up, as have the recent top grossers in the genre; but it does possess qualities its rivals lack, i.e., a good script, a complicated and compelling story, and excellent acting. Admittedly, these qualities do not normally translate into box office clout, and the genre's focus being what it is, the Best Film Hugo will probably go to another fan-friendly TV show. But my personal awards, which I believe are no more meaningless than those others, go to Richard Kelly, Darko's first-time director and script writer.

Like the word "irony," which is habitually and wrongly used to characterize mere coincidence, the nature and meaning of the term "black comedy" is often misapprehended. Thus it is that American Beauty, perhaps the most self-congratulatory film in the history of the motion picture, a pompous art-statement made by folks who wouldn't recognize art if it stuck its tongue down their throat, has been labeled a black comedy, whereas it is in actuality a tired and pretentious social satire that launches a labored attack on the wages of consumerism (a blatant hypocrisy, considering its origin at DreamWorks) and concludes with a voiceover narrated by a dead man telling us how he wouldn't change a thing about his life, which included alienation from his wife, the contempt of his children, a joyless job, a self-destructive infatuation with a cheerleader, and his subsequent murder at the hands of deranged homophobe/homosexual. The imperatives of black comedy demand a less deluded resolution and permit no such sappy epiphanies. By any definition, however, Donnie Darko is a black comedy, albeit a most unconventional one that juxtaposes concerns with mental problems, troubled teenagers, families, the '80s, time travel, and the institutions of self-help, high school, and psychiatry, and somehow manages to juggle all this material and achieve an allusive beauty. And unlike most black comedies, Darko is hilariously funny.

The title character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal (Homer Hickam in October Sky), is a bright suburban teenager currently on medication and undergoing therapy for undefined pyschological problems that manifest in sleepwalking and the occasional act of arson. He also receives visits from an imaginary (or perhaps not so imaginary) friend named Frank who wears the dirt-smeared costume of a heavy metal Easter Bunny with pupil-less eyes, ferocious teeth, and antlerlike ears. One night after being summoned from his dreams by Frank, Donnie sleepwalks, and Frank tells him that he has traveled back from the future to warn him that the world will end in slightly more than 28 days. After sleeping until morning on a golf course, Donnie returns home to find that a jet engine has fallen out of the sky (yet no plane reports one missing) and crashed into his bedroom--Frank has, in effect, saved his life. From this point on, Frank returns every so often to remind Donnie that time is running out and instructs him to commit a number of increasingly violent crimes that appear to be unrelated, but eventually are seen to be elements of a larger and more mysterious event. Donnie soon begins to observe strange distortions in reality. For one, he sees transparent liquid entities that emerge from the chests of his friends and family and precede them as they move through their days, almost as if these creatures were leading their human hosts along predestined paths. How Donnie interprets these phenomena and learns what he must do in order to spare the people he loves (a new girlfriend, parents, et al) from mortal danger and a more punishing variety of grief than they otherwise might suffer forms the basis of the plot.

Of the smallish tradition of American black comedies that have utilized a high school setting--Heathers, Rushmore, Election, The Faculty (I insist it's a comedy), none has done so more effectively than Darko. Donnie's school, Middlesex, is lorded over by a grotesque bronze mascot, half-man, half-bulldog, known as the Mongrel, and this bizarre piece of statuary informs the character of the school, a place where self-help guru Jim Cunningham (a perfectly cast Patrick Swayze) is regaled by half the faculty, reviled by the other half, and whose student body has the paranoid cohesion of patients on a mental ward. Donnie constantly gets himself in trouble by challenging the school's short-sighted authority figures, but finds a sympathetic ear in the person of an English teacher played nicely by Drew Barrymore, who also served as the film's executive producer (God bless you, Ms. Barrymore! I take back every nasty thing I ever said about you . . . except for the stuff about Charlie's Angels) and a physics teacher who nourishes Donnie's interest in time travel by giving him a book on the subject written by a former Middlesex faculty member--she has since devolved into a creepy oid neighborhood lady known by the kids as Grandma Death.

The most astonishing thing about Darko is its level of ambition and the degree to which it succeeds in doing what it seeks to accomplish. Not only is it a black comedy, it is also an effective period piece--the story unfolds against the backdrop of the Bush-Dukakis election--and a poignant family drama. Generally films that attempt this much, especially first films, wind up being complete messes; the problem of creating characters that are at the same time real and funny usually proves too much to overcome. But while some of Darko's characters are wrought with broad strokes, the accuracy of Kelly's dialog inspirits other of his creations to stand and breathe with authentic power. I've seen the movie twice now, and I'm still not quite certain how Kelly manages to pull his complex materials together. But pull them together he does, and in a manner that is both startling and intensely moving. Gyllenhaal, by turns menacing, vulnerable, and funny, brilliantly assists his director in conveying the emotional substance of the film, and the remainder of the cast--notably Katharine Ross as Donnie's psychiatrist, and Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as his well-intended but bewildered parents--complements his performance. If Darko had been better distributed and given a sufficient advertising budget, I'm convinced that Gyllenhaal would have a chance for an Oscar nomination.

Those who have read this column may have concluded that I have no affection for the tropes of traditional science fiction, but this is not the case. I would love to see a science fictional Lawrence of Arabia, an epic space opera replete with explosions and aliens and so forth, and that also is gifted with vital characters and a story that aspires to do more than update a fairy tale or repackage a western. But given the state of the industry, I'm not so sure such a film is possible. Having endured almost every genre movie released this year, from the putrescence that was Mission to Mars, through the faux-Kubrickian puffery of AI to Planet of the Apes, a laughably incompetent film that Tim Burton appears to have assembled from spare parts fallen out of Charleton Heston's brain, it's become apparent that there is a formula at work here: the bigger the budget, the dumber the movie. Perhaps this process has some economic validity, though the box-office performance of such films as I have mentioned--one-week-wonders all--seems to imply that there is plenty of room for refinement. Give a director eight or nine figures to play with, and you are flat guaranteed a mediocre-at-best product with a great look and way-cool FX and the intellectual content of a Saturday morning cartoon. Much of this is due to the fact that studio heads, paranoid about their massive investments, cannot stop tinkering and assign writer after writer to perform serial hack jobs on what once may have been decent scripts, the idea being that this employment of multiple incompetents will transform the script into something accessible to the lowest common denominator, thus making it appeal to a wider audience. Indie films, once the refuge of the auteur, have become little more than a farm system for Hollywood. Films by new directors such as Kelly are esssentially job applications. The odds are good that Darko will not be merely Kelly's first film, but his only good film, and like his immediate predecessors Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), now assigned to Batman Beyond, and Chris Nolan (Memento), currently filming a remake of the Danish film Insomnia starring the gag-and-shudder pairing of mugger Robin Williams and shouter Al Pacino, and like dozens of others before them, he will be gobbled up by the studios and assigned to a project that pays him a seven-figure director's fee and has no chance whatsoever of being worth mule spit.

Is there a remedy for this?

In a better world, where punishment and reward were fairly apportioned out by Hollywood, a director like Martin Scorsese, say, would be called into the office after producing several losers in a row and told, "Marty, we're sending you down to the minors. Let's see what you can do with a five million dollar budget. Reacquaint yourself with story values, and then maybe we'll bring you back up."

Or let's suppose that Hollywood was run like the NBA, with a rookie salary cap. Every new director brought into the system, instead of one moment being in charge of a film he made on credit cards, faith, and cheap take-out, and the next moment driving down the highway in a 100 million dollar star vehicle, so intimidated by the experience that he permits himself to be dictated to by Armani-clad bozos whose idea of a good time is sitting around a table talking concept with twelve guys named "Hey, you!"--instead of that, if they were moved along slowly, given a few smallish vehicles to prove their worth before handing them the keys to the stretch limo, if Hollywood were run like any ordinary business, then we might actually get to see a big-budget science fiction movie that's aimed at an audience who have stopped measuring their rate of growth with marks on a doorframe.

But that day will likely never come.

Hollywood, stoned on the fumes of ego and power, perceives a different reality than most of us and operates with a lurid dysfunctionality that, though horribly inefficient, manages to survive in a celebrity-driven environment. Should that environment change, however, a thousand blackly clad lizards will scurry from the studio lots, squeaking that the sky is falling, seeking to avoid being crushed by the fall of the fabulous edifice that protected them from the killing light of truth and beauty, and the laws of Karma.

Now there is a dumb big-budget movie I'd like to see:

The Sky Is Falling.

A disaster flick starring every lame-o actor whose career expired in this industry Extinction-Level Event.

For now, those who yearn for adult science fiction films are stuck with little pictures like Donnie Darko and Aronofsky's Pi It's not such a bad place to be stuck, really. There's a considerable joy to be had in discovering such films, in wandering into a theater and watching something completely unexpected on the screen, something that hasn't been denatured, castrated, and covered in a thin candy shell.

At any rate, it'll have to do until something better happens along.

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