There must have been something in the drinking water during the 1980s, because the decade seems filled with a sense of general apprehension, paranoia, doubt, and political unease. Just listen to the music of the period. Anything from the widely popular U2, Genesis, Paul Simon, and Live Aid, to Midnight Oil, The Clash, Nena, and Devo. The air was thick with anxiety and doubt about the world, but contradicted by a desire to live it up without a care and be a good consumer. And if for nothing else, Richard Kelly ('The Box') perfectly captured this mood and atmosphere in his puzzling feature-film debut 'Donnie Darko.' As a combination of teen drama, fantasy, horror, comedy, and sci-fi, the genre-bending descent into the disturbed imagination of a troubled teen eludes easy comprehension, yet it refuses to be forgotten.
On the surface, the simple but impressive storyline is one of the craziest sci-fi journeys on time traveling. While Kelly has been known to welcome any and all interpretations, this one aspect is made much more apparent in the Director's Cut of the film. Seen as an analysis of his own movie, this version takes teen angst to another level of bizarreness, one that's highly original and exciting. With ideas of tangent universes, wormholes, the "manipulate living," and mentions of DeLorean time machines, Donnie's (Jake Gyllenhaal) quest to figure out the significance of his visions and create a sense of purpose is mesmerizing and absorbing. Gyllenhaal's portrayal, along with Kelly's direction, does a marvelous job drawing viewers in and making them care for this kid, eventually having us feel for Donnie's anguish and confusion as the world crashes around him.
Without giving too much away, his investigation ultimately leads him to realize how he affects the lives of others, especially those closest to him. As far as we can gather, Donnie struggles with finding meaning, often seen as depressed and wandering without a thought of what he wants from his life. What if he was meant to die when the jet engine crashed into his bedroom? What are the effects or consequences of his cheating death? Are the people around better off without his destructive presence? These are the puzzling questions that arise – at least, internally – as Donnie researches the possibilities while under the guidance of a giant, demented bunny named Frank (James Duval). Along these lines, it almost seems as if his realization of wormholes is a chance to redeem himself in a very baffling, weird way and not ruin the lives of those he cares about.
Considering all the unusual events that followed after the jet engine crash, I'm tempted to suggest the whole thing is one really strange, drug-induced dream. After all, Donnie's sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal), in an earlier scene, suddenly announces out of spite that he hasn't been taking his medication in a while. Possibly out of guilt towards his mother (Mary McDonnell), Donnie finally pops some pills from a bottle dated in July. (This story takes place in October.) That same night, he meets the deranged-looking, six-foot bunny rabbit for the first time and starts seeing trippy, 'Abyss'-like portals come out of his chest, as well as from others. This next part could be a spoiler, so be warned. In the concluding minutes, we see Donnie laughing his butt off as if he were flying high like a kite.
Is it possible Donnie is simply hallucinating and the people in his small town are all a bunch of anxiety-ridden individuals? I don't know, and I don't pretend to know the answers surrounding this labyrinthine film. It's a tough nut to crack. The fact that Donnie's apocalyptic, nightmarish visions begin the night he decides to retake his medication -- after who knows how many months! -- could all just be a coincidence. Then again, it also adds another layer of complexity to this bizarre coming-of-age tale. In the end, however, I really enjoy the time-traveling angle, as it offers what I think is at the heart of 'Donnie Darko.' Ultimately, this psycho-thriller in my eyes is an eccentrically perplexing journey of adolescent awkwardness. Or to be more precise, it's a social commentary on being a teen during the 1980s culture.
The plot takes place at the end of the Reagan years, at a time when many believed a major change was coming with the presidential elections of 1988 (That is until the "Dukakis in a tank" fiasco). Popular reads, like Stephen King's It and Stephen Hawking, are shown throughout the film. These pop culture references make room for critical jabs at people's fascination with new-age mysticism and the unexplainable. One of Donnie's teachers Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant) goes on to use a self-help program as an instructional tool, even likening it to the level of a religious practice. The fact that the program's creator, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), turns out to be a fraud only shows that those who speak loudest, or in this case, espouse a false belief, are often the ones with the most to hide, lacking the conviction of what they advocate. Much of this interplay could be suggestive of the pseudoscience which resulted from Dianetics, another immensely popular book with a strong religious following.
Most interesting is the concern over creative thinking and originality going unnoticed or ignored – at one point, even ridiculed as obscenely dangerous – while fashionable, widely accepted trends are celebrated and rewarded. While the quarrel between Ms. Farmer and Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) makes this fairly clear, I personally enjoy the talent show as the point where it's most apparent and emotional. Poor Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) tries to share her talent for unique interpretative dance, even titling it, "Autumn Major," but the unappreciative audience struggles to keep their giggles unheard. Then, when the dance group Sparkle Motion -– yet another popular trend of the eighties –- takes the stage, people quickly respond with cheers and claps as Duran Duran's "Notorious" plays in the background. As is often the case, popular trends favor approval over fresh creativity and newness.
Naturally, these are just my thoughts on 'Donnie Darko,' an imaginative and original sci-fi feature in its own right. What makes it such an entertaining and impressive film debut from Richard Kelly is how it encourages and welcomes different theories from other points of view, including its own creator. The changes from the theatrical version and the Director's Cut range from minor to unmistakably obvious, particularly some new visual elements and excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel in later parts of the second act. Overall, I feel the alterations give the film a smoother flow, while making the time traveling angle a more prominent element. Still, I fall in the category of those who see the theatrical version as superior to Kelly's alternate vision. Either way, 'Donnie Darko' is a very impressive and remarkable film which continues to amaze after several, countless viewings.
With a few DVD incarnations already available, 'Donnie Darko' has never been much of a looker. Riddled with specks, compression artifacts, and mostly soft all around, the film was a low-budget production and likely shot with a readily affordable film stock. Then again, the photography works as part of the film’s charm, looking almost like something straight out of the 1980s. In this 1080p/AVC-encoded (2.35:1) transfer, the picture quality appears to be the same with slight, if only minor improvement over its standard definition counterpart. Most apparent is a cleaner overall appearance, minus the video anomalies, with a color palette that receives the biggest upgrade, appearing nicely saturated and accurate. The remainder of the film simply doesn't translate well in high definition.
No doubt shot with the use of certain diffusion filters, the picture is slightly subdued and lightly grayish in tone. The effect reduces contrast levels somewhat but it's nothing that ruins clarity and resolution. In fact, whites are cleanly rendered and sharp, just not overly bright, yet they bloom a tad for a surreal, dreamlike appearance. The grain structure remains intact and usually unobtrusive, except for a few moments of chroma noise in the blue sky. Blacks can be deep at times but mostly fall on the lower side of the grayscale. There are also several instances of crush and poor shadow delineation. Despite a few scenes where complexions look somewhat pinkish, flesh tones are generally natural and warm. While there is much to look at, the overall image is disappointingly soft and nothing we'd expect from a Blu-ray. Nonetheless, the film looks better here than it does on previous DVD versions and shows no discernible difference between the Theatrical and Director's Cut.
Much like the video, 'Donnie Darko' has never really sounded like demo material, though previous lossy tracks weren't bad either. The sound design focuses more attention on dialogue and 80s tunes than it does on sound effects. With the release of the Director's Cut, however, Richard Kelly went back and remastered the original soundtrack to create a wider soundscape that utilized the surround speakers. The difference was quite noticeable, especially with the new DVD version that soon followed.
For this Blu-ray release, Fox Home Entertainment provides 'Donnie Darko' with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track that improves upon the film's sound elements with greater fidelity and depth. Between the two versions of the film, the Director's Cut also exhibits more surround activity, accuracy, and a full-bodied presence. When Frank speaks, his voice is more frightening and menacing as it occupies all five channels. The songs and original score by Michael Andrews are equally impressive as they fills the entire front soundstage and envelop the listening area with some satisfyingly subtle bleeds in the rear speakers. Dynamics are also warm and inviting, penetrating the room with wonderful clarity and definition. Low-frequency effects add adequate support to the music and a couple of scenes when appropriate. Atmospheric effects are light, but increase dimension and broaden the soundfield when employed. Vocals are well-prioritized and never overwhelmed by other sound activity.
On the whole, the most significant improvement on this latest 'Donnie Darko' release comes by way of the very satisfying high resolution audio, especially for fans of the music.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Donnie Darko' to Blu-ray with the same bonus features found in the two-disc special edition of the Director's Cut. The only thing ported over from the theatrical single-disc release is the audio commentary with cast and crew.
The second commentary is with the cast and crew reminiscing about their experiences while shooting the film. The group is made up of Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, James Duval, and producer Sean McKittrick. Immediately clear is how the group enjoys each other's company and discuss mostly their thoughts of what they think the film is about.
The third commentary is found only on the Director's Cut of the film and again with Richard Kelly, only joined by another writer/director, Kevin Smith. Not only do they discuss the drastic changes between the two versions, but both offer some great insights into the film. While the other two commentaries are entertaining, this one was most enjoyable and arguably the best.
'Donnie Darko' is a very strange journey through the disturbed imagination of a troubled teen and has amassed an immensely large cult following (and warranted one less than stellar "sequel" of sorts). Making an impressive film debut, Richard Kelly's genre-bending nightmare encourages various interpretations from the viewer, yet refuses easy comprehension, and doesn't reveal its meaning as it explores 80s pop culture at the end of the Reagan era. This Blu-ray edition of the film comes with solid video quality. As for the audio, it definitely takes advantage of the higher resolution. Supplements are ported over from the previous two-disc DVD edition. Ultimately, fans will love the package, and neophytes are highly encouraged to watch this film immediately.