Review for Donnie Darko
You’re going to have to forgive the lateness of this review. After all, when a company issues a 4k restoration of Donnie Darko, you just have to see it on Blu-ray; nothing else will do it justice. Actually this review will be a little later, as once the postman delivered my nice shiny copy, I found that it is packed to the gills with extra features, including a brand new, feature length documentary. To be frank, it will be later even than that, as this is a two disc release, with the Director’s Cut alongside the Theatrical Cut. I was late to the Donnie Darko bandwagon, only finally watching the film six years after its initial release, long after the hype had died away. But I got it. The story made sense to me, and I didn’t need any more, so while the option of the director’s cut was there, the fact that it purportedly offered more in the way of exposition to explain its ‘timey-wimey’ plot seemed wholly superfluous to me. But now that I have this Blu-ray, I have no excuse to not watch Donnie Darko and the subsequent Director’s Cut at least once. A limited edition, dual format 4 disc release with hefty collector’s book came out in December last year. I’m looking at this month’s standard Blu-ray release.
It’s October 1988. Donnie Darko is a troubled teen growing up in a sleepy suburb. He’s in therapy, on medication and a chronic sleepwalker. Then one night he’s drawn to the local golf course, where a giant rabbit named Frank appears to him. This is no Harvey though; more a vision from hell, and Frank tells him that there are 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds until the world ends. That’s barely enough time to meet a girl and fall in love. Then a jet engine falls on his house…
The theatrical version lasts 113:14. The Director’s Cut lasts 133:53, and adds more in the way of character beats, and is more explicit about the Deus ex Machina in the movie, with inserts from Roberta Sparrow’s book, as well as some cyberpunk imagery.
Donnie Darko gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on these discs for both versions. I haven’t seen Donnie Darko in any other format than the initial DVD from Metrodome, so I can’t comment on just how much of an upgrade this Blu-ray is from the previous release, just how much of a difference the 4k restoration makes to this film. But taken on its own merits, the image in this Blu-ray looks fantastic. It’s clear and sharp, with strong, consistent colours, the image is stable, with no signs of compression. It’s properly filmic, with a natural level of grain, and the full level of detail that you’d expect from HD. Darker scenes come across robustly, with good contrast, and great shadow detail. For what was a low budget indie feature, the film looks epic. Naturally the effects of the restoration are consistent across both versions.
The audio comes in DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround flavour, with optional English subtitles. The surround is effective enough for the low budget feature, really coming to life for the film’s more eerie moments. It also springs to life for that deliciously evocative soundtrack, residing in my favourite decade.
Things take a different tack with the director’s cut, where the audio was actually re-mastered for the film, the sound design made more eerie, ominous and surreal. Apparently INXS was always meant to start the film, but as is often the way, first time impressions are lasting, and I prefer Echo and the Bunnymen. But there are other song replacements in the film which are less jarring. There is an issue with this disc though. Jim Cunningham’s dialogue around 1:24:12 is slightly out of sync, while the Notorious dance sequence that follows it has muddy audio for the music until the 1:25:01 point where it suddenly becomes clear. Other than these two small issues, the Director’s Cut is comparable to the Theatrical when it comes to audio.
2 discs come in a Blu-ray Amaray with a reversible sleeve and o-card packaging, one disc on a central hinged panel. There’s also a 20-page booklet featuring an essay from Nathan Rabin in the first print versions (not the big book in the Limited Edition). The discs quickly boot to animated menus.
Disc 1: Theatrical Cut
While the discs collate many of the extra features from the previous DVD and Blu-ray Donnie Darko releases, there are some new goodies as well, most prominently Deus Ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko, which is a newly made making of documentary, with interviews with the director, producer, and prominent members of the crew, as well as actor James Duval (Frank). Note that there are spoilers for the Director’s Cut if you are yet to watch it. It’s a lovely retrospective, and well worth watching. This lasts 85:23 and is in HD.
The Goodbye Place lasts 8:43 and is in pillarboxed 1080p HD with PCM mono audio. It’s in monochrome too. This is Richard Kelly’s short film from 1996, and some of the themes of the story are familiar.
There are 20 deleted scenes on this disc, presented in 1080p but obviously up-scaled. The total run time is 31:54, and you can watch them with an optional commentary to learn why they were cut.
The film’s trailer is in HD and runs to 2:28.
Finally there are two commentaries on this disc. The first is with Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, which is nice, informative and eventually yields much information about the film. The second commentary, which collects much of the remaining cast and crew together, is a loud free for all that is difficult to unravel.
Disc 2: Director’s Cut
The commentary on the director’s cut comes from Richard Kelly again, this time with Kevin Smith. It’s a decent enough chat, if predictably profane, but despite Kelly introducing Smith as a way of keeping the commentary flowing, it still is pretty gappy as they stop to watch the movie.
The Donnie Darko Production Diary offers behind the scenes footage from the month of shooting, with the odd candid moment with crew or cast-member. You can watch this with an optional commentary from the director of photography, Steven Poster. This lasts 52:52 and is presented as up-scaled 1080i.
There are 15 Archive Interviews with the cast and crew running to a total time of 14:19 in 1080i upscale. As you might guess, they are of the soundbite nature.
They Made Me Do It lasts 4:48, and you can see some British Graffiti artists at work creating a Donnie Darko exhibition. Again this is in 1080i upscale.
They Made Me Do It II: The Cult of Donnie Darko lasts 30:17, 1080i, and is a UK documentary from around the time of the Director’s Cut DVD release, which features interviews with the UK film scene, fans and critics, and the then distributor, Metrodome.
#1 Fan: A Darkomentary lasts 13:18 and is in 1080i. For the director’s cut DVD, they ran a competition to find the #1 Donnie Darko fan, by soliciting fan films with the winner getting a place on the disc. This was the winner.
The Storyboard Comparisons lasts 7:58 and are in up-scaled 1080p.
There is 4:37 of b-roll footage in 1080i.
The Cunning Visions Infomercials are those self-help videos from the film presented here in their entirety. They are made funnier by the optional mock commentary. These lasts 5:42 and are in 1080i.
The disc wouldn’t be complete without the Gary Jules music video, and you also get an image gallery with around 50 images, the Director’s Cut Trailer, and 5 TV Spots.
It very much is time to double-dip. If you’ve only seen Donnie Darko on DVD up to this point, then you are going to love this 4k re-mastered Blu-ray, and you’ll be counting down the days, weeks and months until Arrow start issuing UHD discs. I can’t say just how much of an improvement this is over the previous Blu-ray, but in terms of the extras package alone, these discs have almost everything, while the booklet certainly is worth a read. The Limited Edition released last Christmas is even more delectable in that regard. Donnie Darko is an enjoyable mind twister of a film. It’s one of those films that demands repeat viewings, as the director has secreted little hints and winks in the film that pay off the second or third time around. It’s also useful in figuring out what’s going on. Of course having grown up worshiping at the gates of sci-fi, I got it the first time round. But were this any other film, I probably would have shrugged at the predestination paradox and not given it another thought.
But Donnie Darko is a lot like another classic time travel movie. Back To The Future was never about the DeLorean, it was a means to get Marty to meet his parents as teenagers and interact with them, learn that they weren’t as alien to him as the grown up versions. The time machine was just a plot device necessary to pull this off. In Donnie Darko, the sci-fi elements are much more integral to the story, but the 1988 setting, the richly coloured in background to Donnie’s world is what makes it such a nostalgic draw. We’re taken right back to a world without the Internet, without mobile phones, but with some of the most memorable pop music ever laid to CD.
Donnie Darko takes all those eighties teen movies and gives them an ironic twist. There are elements in the film that are recognisable to anyone who’s seen a John Hughes film, and like any good satire it pulls out those aspects that we are uncomfortable remembering. We have the slightly dysfunctional family, the mother who chooses not to accept that her son is growing and changing. Like all such eighties’ families, she’s handed off responsibility to an overpaid therapist, who insists on talking Donnie through his feelings. Also a painful memory of the decade is the motivational speaker, the kind of conman who made millions by writing a book telling you how to think yourself into success, creating his own lingo to give him an air of credibility. There is also the classic ‘teen movie, the parents are out all night, let’s have a party’ party. The one in Donnie Darko is so familiar that I expected there to be a couple of kids upstairs, bras on heads, gathered around a Barbie doll and a Vic 20.
Of course this is just background, as Donnie Darko is a far more complex and eerie film. It has that cult cachet of not settling for one genre. There are elements of comedy, drama, and teen romance to it. But most of all is the overlying strangeness and undercurrent of horror. Frank is not the most pleasant creation to ever grace the screen, and the way that he and Donnie interact is certainly unsettling. Perceptions are twisted and the laws of cause and effect rendered meaningless. Yet the film remains consistent to its own internal rules, so that when the denouement arrives, it doesn’t disappoint.
If cult could be a genre, then Donnie Darko does follow some of the same conventions. One is that it gives a world that appeals to its audience; here it is the rose-tinted vision of a bygone decade. The mix of genres is another, while the third is how quotable the film is. The dialogue can be totally irrelevant as long as it is memorable. I can completely imagine Jules and Vincent having a similar conversation about the sexuality of smurfs in Pulp Fiction, it holds that level of design to it.
The story is strong, the twist appealing, as is the film’s setting, but perhaps the strongest part of Donnie Darko is the richness of the characters and how well they are written. While the story may be fantastic, the way that they interact is natural, moving and funny. It is the core of the film, and it is this that gives it its real repeat value, above the sci-fi and the nostalgia. Donnie Darko isn’t the earth-shattering revolution in cinema that was acclaimed all those years ago, but it builds on established ideas and presents itself in an original way. It is entertaining though, and if a good film can be defined as something that provides talking points for the drive home from the cinema, then Donnie Darko is a must see. And Donnie has the creepiest smile in film.
This was my first time watching the Director’s Cut though, and contrary to my initial preconception that this would be another overlong self-indulgence as so many Directors’ Cuts turn out to be, the added 25 minutes were barely noticeable. The film still has the same pace, it flows well, and the added scenes offer much in the way of character. But, my other concern, that it unnecessarily expounds on the time travel aspects of the story is indeed so. I personally didn’t need it, the excerpts of the book, or the cyberpunk imagery. It doesn’t diminish the film any, and it is perfectly watchable as a version of Donnie Darko. I guess it’s best to check just how much free time you have before choosing which disc to watch.