Fifteen years before Stranger Things, Richard Kelly set the template and the high-water mark with his debut feature, Donnie Darko. Initially beset with distribution problems, it would slowly find its audience and emerge as arguably the first cult classic of the new millennium. Donnie is a troubled high school student: in therapy, prone to sleepwalking and in possession of an imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days 06 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds. During that time he will navigate teenage life, narrowly avoid death in the form of a falling jet engine, follow Frank's maladjusted instructions and try to maintain the space-time continuum. Described by its director as ''The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick'', Donnie Darko combines an eye-catching, eclectic cast pre-stardom Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, heartthrob Patrick Swayze, former child star Drew Barrymore, Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell and Katharine Ross, and ER star Noah Wyle and an evocative soundtrack of 80s classics by Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran. This brand-new 4K restoration, carried out exclusively for this release by Arrow Films, allows a modern classic to finally receive the home video treatment it deserves.
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 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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Limited Edition box set of Donnie Darko travels through a wormhole courtesy of Arrow Video as a four-disc combo set. Inside an attractive black cardboard box, there are two digipacks and a 94-page hardcover book with five informative essays and a new Foreword by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Each digipack holds two discs — the Blu-ray sits comfortably atop a DVD Copy — which can be removed by placing the index finger in the middle ring and the thumb on the bottom edge of the plastic panel. When pushing down, carefully lift using the index finger. Also included is an envelope addressed to Roberta Sparrow with seven postcards, which can be pieced together to make a poster, and a poster of the newly commissioned artwork. The wealth of special features are spread between the two Blu-rays, which go straight to the menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
As I previously mentioned on the 2009 Blu-ray release, Donnie Darko has never been much a looker, in spite of it offering a step-up over the few DVD incarnations. Much of this is the result of a low-budget production and cinematographer Steven B. Poster shooting in readily affordable film stock.
Nevertheless, the folks at Arrow Video should be commended for giving the film a brand new lease on life for this "Limited Edition" box set. Compared to the previous Blu-ray and with the approval of both Richard Kelly and Poster, this new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is a massive improvement with noticeably better resolution and clarity throughout. According to the accompanying book, the original 35mm camera negatives were restored and remastered at 4K resolution while the Director's Cut was put together using the best available 35mm digital intermediate. And the results are simply phenomenal.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the cult sci-fi drama looks cleaner overall with richly-saturated primaries, particularly the greens in the perfectly manicured lawns and the resplendent blue sky. Secondary hues are also a tad brighter with a bit more variety in a few scenes, and flesh tones come with a more natural, rosy complexion.
The stylized photography was accomplished by the use of diffusion filters, giving the presentation a soft, dreamy quality and a slightly subdued, lightly grayish tone. Thankfully, the deliberate look doesn't affect contrast levels too much, as whites appear more brilliant and crisper. Beneath the surreal, dreamlike appearance, viewers can better make out the sharp lines in buildings and various furniture, random objects in the background are more intelligible, and the threading in the clothing is distinct in every scene. The most notable difference are the deeper, richer blacks while maintaining excellent shadow delineation, providing the image with a welcomed three-dimensionality quality.
There is minimal difference between the Theatrical Version and the Director's Cut, or at least, it's too negligible to warrant a complaint. With an attractive thin layer of natural grain present from beginning to end, giving the presentation a beautiful film-like appeal, this high-def version is splendid.
Another unexpected upgrade in this beautiful box set is an awesome DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that's weirdly and shockingly better than its predecessor, even though the Arrow website states it's the same track ported over from the previous Blu-ray.
The track remains focused on the dialogue and 80s tunes, but it seems as though the producers might have tweaked the original sound design just a bit, creating a slightly wider soundscape that better utilizes the surround speakers. The angry grumbling voices of people at the PTA meeting can be heard all around, the loud cheers of the crowd at the talent show fill the whole room, and the chatter of teenagers partying envelopes the entire listening area. Several scenes come with subtle atmospheric effects, generating a larger dimension and broadening the soundfield. When Frank speaks, his voice spreads into all the channels, feeling more frightening and menacing.
The front soundstage also comes with greater fidelity and depth, generating a more spacious and full-bodied presence. The song selections and Michael Andrews's original score are equally impressive, creating a more immersive and engaging lossless mix with crystal-clear clarity in the instrumentation. Mid-range is highly detailed and dynamic, penetrating the room with wonderful definition and terrific warmth. Low-frequency effects add adequate support to the music and a couple of scenes when appropriate while vocals remain well-prioritized and precise.
Tempting devoted, loyal fans further, producers of this collector's Limited Edition comes loaded with a whole new set of special features for fans to explore.
Disc One: Theatrical Version
Writer/director Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal
Kelly, Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, James Duval, and producer Sean McKittrick
Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko (HD, 85 min).
"The Goodbye Place" (HD, 9 min).
Deleted Scenes (HD, 32 min).
Trailer (HD, 2 min).
Disc One: Director's Cut
Writer/director Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith
They Made Me Do It (1080i/60, 5 min).
They Made Me Do It Too (1080i/60, 30 min).
#1 Fan: A Darkomentary (1080i/60, 13 min).
Production Diary (1080i/60, 53 min).
Archive Interviews (1080i/60, 14 min).
B-roll Footage (1080i/60, 5 min).
Cunning Visions Infomercials (1080i/60, 6 min).
Storyboard Comparisons (HD, 8 min).
Music Video (1080i/60).
Still Gallery (HD).
Trailers (HD, 1080i/60): Director's Cut trailer and five TV spots.
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 a 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.
The new Limited Edition box set courtesy of Arrow Video travels through a wormhole with an excellent audio and video presentation, an improvement over its predecessor. With brand-new supplements, postcards, poster and a hardcover book, the four-disc box is a must-own for loyal fans, otherwise, I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.