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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment offers this four-disc Blu-ray package of 'Donnie Darko' as a 10th Anniversary Edition. Only the first disc is a BD50 while the next two are DVDs, and they are all Region A locked. The fourth and final disc is a digital copy of the movie for portable devices.
They're all housed in a slightly thicker than normal blue keepcase and on separate plastic holders. The cover art is a new design and comes with a glossy cardboard slipcover. At startup, we get skippable trailers for 'Mirrors' and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' Afterwards, viewers are greeted with the usual menu selection with music playing in the background.
Anyone hoping for a remaster of this hugely popular cult favorite will be sorely disappointed with this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1). The transfer is the same, identical presentation seen on the 2009 Blu-ray, with the slightly out-of-focus, mostly blurry look. The picture comes with a lightly grayish tone and highlights that slightly bloom for a surreal, dreamlike appearance. Fine object and textural details never look very sharp or distinct, often coming across as an upscaled DVD in several sequences. Despite good clarity and resolution, contrast falls on the lower end of the grayscale, affecting black levels to lose much of their luster and making several poorly-lit scenes suffer weak shadow delineation. Film grain is plainly visible and unobtrusive, but a couple of scenes reveal instances of minor chroma noise. Colors benefit the most with bold here, with accurate saturation making it a nice upgrade from the DVD, but not much else.
Unlike the video, the audio is the clear winner on this Blu-ray of 'Donnie Darko.' As I mentioned in the original review, the lossless mix is a clear improvement with greater fidelity and depth. The Director's Cut is a bit better than the Theatrical Version by exhibiting more surround activity, accuracy, and a full-bodied presence. Frank's voice is also immersive as it bleeds into all five channels while the song selections and musical score satisfyingly envelop the listening area. Atmospherics are light and used sparingly, but they extend and broaden the soundfield nicely. Dynamic range is warm and inviting with sharp clarity and definition, and low-frequency effects support the music with good weight and appropriate response. Dialogue and character interaction are very well prioritized and intelligible throughout, making it a highly-enjoyable and satisfying high-rez presentation for a mysteriously original motion picture.
To celebrate 'Donnie Darko''s 10th birthday, Fox releases this Blu-ray edition with the same bonus material found in the already available two-disc HD set. The only difference is a third disc that's essentially a duplicate of the theatrical single-disc DVD with all the special features.
'Donnie Darko' is a very strange journey through the disturbed imagination of a troubled teen. The film has amassed an immense 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 10th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of the sci-fi drama comes with the same audio and video presentation as the previous release. Supplements are ported over from the previous two-disc DVD edition as well as the single-disc DVD version and accompanied by a Digital Copy. Ultimately, this is the package to pick up if you haven't already purchased it. Otherwise, wait for a sale price to replace the first Blu-ray if you really feel the need.
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.