At the World Cinema Showcase, the end is nigh for Richard Kelly. By MATT PICKERING.

WE ALL knew Donnie Darko would be a tough act to follow. With Southland Tales, director Richard Kelly expands on the ideas of time travel and suburban science fiction that captivated us in his first film. It seemed only a natural progression for Kelly to turn his attention directly to the apocalypse, but such bracing subject matter is a double-edged sword. It may just have been too much to handle. The film initially showed at Cannes in 2006 to horrid reviews, but nevertheless still found a backer. Kelly subsequently cut the film back by 25 minutes and added another million dollars worth of computer effects, but the storytelling is where this film wins and loses.

With what seemed like an unlimited budget and total creative control, the Donnie Darko kid sets his end-of-days epic in 2008 Los Angeles. Where and when else would the events that lead to the end of the world happen? Nowhere else matters right? In 2005 the world is plunged into World War III after twin nuke blasts tear into the heart of America. The US government cracks down to secure the Homeland, focusing on internet and identity security, and trying to find new ways to quench the country’s thirst for energy. Can ‘Fluid Karma’ – the technology that harnesses the power of the ocean – be the answer? The government thinks so. Will the flight of the ‘Mega-Zeppelin’ powered by Fluid Karma will be the ultimate symbol of a new age of energy? These ideas provide the political and environmental backdrop for a story about, among many, a pornstar-turned-businesswoman (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an amnesiac action hero (Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock) and a policeman (Seann William Scott). Normally I would stay clear of a film featuring any of these actors (let alone in the same film), but then I didn’t let Patrick Swayze put me off seeing Donnie Darko. The huge cast makes for an extensive network of stories and relationships that sadly, is too vast to allow any depth or growth. This means the characters are shallow and one-dimensional.

The problem is this: In Southland Tales, there is no ‘Donnie’. Not that a film has to have a ‘Donnie’, but it raises ideas of connection to characters. We really felt for Donnie, got inside his head (as much as we could), empathized with him. This is partly due to the casting of relative newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal; that the audience had no preconceived notion of Gyllenhaal-as-actor meant there was no actor-character dichotomy. We saw Donnie, no Jake. Not so in Southland Tales. That The Rock, Seann William Scott and Sarah Michelle Gellar are such recognizable figures make it somewhat more difficult to see them solely as their characters. Add to this the idea that some characters play other characters – The Rock plays Boxer Santaros, who plays Jericho Cain in the screenplay ‘The Power’ which Boxer has written – and you get characters who become very hard to relate to. Then, throw in the ideas of time-travel and cloning and one begins to ask: How can the audience relate to the characters when the character can’t even relate to themselves?! Hence the film has all of the sci-fi elements with none of the tenderness.

Richard Kelly certainly likes to reference in his films. Justin Timberlake’s character Pilot Abilene narrates the movie, citing the Book of Revelations. The apocalyptic subject matter within the Book of Revelations is a natural if not obvious text to cite here, to the extent that one can equate characters in the Book with characters in this film. Further references range from TS Eliot and Robert Frost, to Marxist propaganda, and the more recent Jane’s Addiction lyrics and the Killers. All in all, it’s an eclectic mix.

Richard Kelly recruited Moby to do the film’s soundtrack. Moby channels Vangelis here; many scenes play out beneath a wash of synths and tribal drums in what was perhaps a conscious aim to align the film with the likes of sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

That this film is a sprawling and somewhat messy narrative is not all that bad – it keeps you thinking long after the film has ended. At least the film forces an opinion out of the viewer. There should be no ambivalence here. Kelly will have to watch out with his next film. Tales of time-travel date quickly.