Back Comments (5) Share:
I missed the original theatrical and DVD release of Donnie Darko, and only caught up with it as a rental back in 2003. I was immediately smitten with the film, which struck me as one of the most interesting pieces of work I’d seen in quite some time. Since then I've owned a variety of different versions—the UK theatrical and director's cut, plus the US theatrical cut for the correct audio pitch—which were fine at the time, but I'm now a high-definition whore and pretty much demand that any film I watch is on Blu-ray or HD DVD. After the disappointment of seeing S. Darko released before the original and a the US release arriving as a region-locked title, Metrodome has come to the rescue of UK fan's like me with their two-disc Blu-ray effort.

 Donnie Darko

Feature


Films involving time travel are notoriously difficult to summarise without completely ruining the plot, so please bear with me while I attempt to make sense of it all. It’s worth noting that this review will contain discussion on some of the more involved plot elements, so those of you who want to remain completely ‘spoiler free’ may want to skip this section and head for the technical appraisal.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhall) lives with his family in the town of Middlesex, an archetypal middle-class neighbourhood in which existence borders on the mundane. During a typical family dinner we discover that all is not well with young Donnie—aside from undergoing regular sessions of therapy, he has also been prescribed a form of medication to control his more ‘eccentric’ personality traits. You see Donnie is plagued by unsettling dreams and visions, in which a six-foot tall bunny rabbit named Frank prophesises the end of the world.

The first sign that all is not well in the universe comes when a jet engine inexplicably lands in Donnie’s bedroom. Thankfully Donnie is absent from the house, having sleepwalked his way to the local golf course after one of his ‘talks’ with Frank. What makes this bizarre event even more fantastic is that the authorities have absolutely no idea where the engine came from—for all intents and purposes, it simply should not be.

From then on in things get even more bizarre, as Donnie’s strange dreams intensify and he is encouraged to commit seemingly random acts of vandalism against his school and the local community. After a chance meeting with a strange old lady nicknamed ‘Grandma Death’ Donnie is introduced to the book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’, which describes many of the events befalling him in alarming detail.

 Donnie Darko
As those surrounding Donnie fall prey to increasingly irrational behaviour, Donnie tries to rationalise his strange visions with aid from the new girl in town, Gretchen Ross (Jenna Malone). As the film hurtles toward its climax the viewer is forced to ask themselves some tough questions—is there a higher power guiding Donnie’s actions, or is he merely a young schizophrenic trying to come to terms with his feelings of isolation and loneliness?

This release includes both the theatrical and director's cuts of Donnie Darko, which came as a great relief to me because I wasn't a huge fan of the changes Kelly made for the film's re-release. Although the director’s cut includes a number of entirely new scenes, the bulk of the additional material comes in the form of small extensions to existing scenes. Kelly has also chosen to introduce a number of new CGI elements for the director’s cut, such as the reflection of Frank the rabbit in Donnie’s eye immediately preceding the dream sequence in which he is warned of the impending apocalypse. Pages from ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’ have also been inserted at regular intervals throughout the film, appearing during the scene transitions that used to be accompanied by black title cards relaying the time remaining until the world ends. These pages explain the concepts of the Tangent Universe, the Living Receiver, the Manipulated Living and Dead, the Artifact of the Living, the Ensurance Trap and more. These pages were previously available only to those with the patience to sift through the Donnie Darko website, or through the features on the previous DVD, but that was part of what made the whole Donnie Darko experience so rewarding.

 Donnie Darko
Perhaps the biggest changes, at least visually, occur towards the end of the film. The images here would seem to remove all doubt that Richard Kelly intended for there to be some ‘alien’ power orchestrating events from far off in the future, and this is something that he discusses in greater detail on the commentary track. In addition to these visual changes, certain audio cues have also been added. There are many subtle additions to the soundtrack, such as an eerie, dreamy rendition of the US National Anthem while Eddie Darko slumbers in front of the static-ridden TV, and  Frank’s voice pops up from time to time to remind both Donnie and the audience to ‘Watch closely’. These are the additions that, for my mind, go a little too far. Sure the theatrical cut was a head-scratcher, but it made me want to learn more about the characters and events in the film. This led to exploration of the website, which in turn led to much thought on the meaning of the film. There are some who would argue that a film has not succeeded if it requires you to scour a website in order to fully appreciate it, but as far as I’m concerned any film that encourages the viewer to put a bit of thought into what they've just witnessed is a cut above the usual mindless dross.

Unfortunately this is where the biggest failing of this director’s cut lies—it simply divulges too much information. I also felt that the film sagged under the weight of the additional material, and I was genuinely baffled by the restoration of certain scenes. However, all of this is in danger of sounding entirely too negative. Even with these minor niggles, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko is still head and shoulders above most films that land on my doormat. Of course the best thing about this release is that the original theatrical cut of Donnie Darko is also included, allowing viewers to make their own decision as to whether the events in the film actually transpired, or were merely the product of Donnie’s delusional mind. It’s this very ambiguity that has ensured the film a place in my heart.

Video


Let me start by saying that Donnie Darko on Blu-ray is not going to set any standards for image quality. This is not really a slight against the 2.35:1 (1080/24p AVC) transfer, but rather an objective assessment of the limitations of the source material. The film was made on a budget of four and a half million dollars—peanuts by Hollywood standards—and shot on Kodak Vision 800T film, which I'm told is a fast film stock usually reserved for night shooting that produces soft images. This was an intentional move on the part of the DP, who liked the look and thought it suited the subject matter. So before criticising the quality of the transfer it is important to realise that Donnie Darko is not Avatar, and that it is never going to look like a two-hundred million dollar digital production.

 Donnie Darko
With that out of the way I'm free to concentrate on the positives, of which there are actually quite a few. Firstly, and most obviously, the level of detail surpasses any DVD releases by a noticeable margin. Don't listen to hyperbole from people who say that there's no difference between the quality of the DVD and Blu-ray, because those people are in need of an eye test if they can't see the additional detail resolved by the HD upgrade (especially on larger screens). Accepting the early caveats about the source being the limiting factor, the Blu-ray actually looks better than I had expected based on reviews of the US set (to which this is similar). A clear advantage over the DVD is the improved compression, which allows for superior grain resolution thereby alleviating the ‘clumping’ problem that affects the up-converted standard-definition version. Practically all of the film artefacts that littered the DVD release have also been eliminated, as has the edge ringing and haloing, resulting in an image that is noticeably cleaner overall.

Another improvement is in the area of colour rendition, with every single hue looking stronger here than they did on DVD. Blacks are still a little on the murky side, but again this would seem to be an unavoidable by-product of the original cinematographic process, as would the sometimes less than perfect brightness and contrast. In fact the BD is actually somewhat darker than the DVD overall, so it’s actually slightly harder to make things out sometimes. Interestingly (or not) the director’s cut features slightly different levels of contrast from scene to scene and marginally different colour timing. Unfortunately the director’s cut has noticeable edge ringing at the top and bottom of the frame and there is some visible edge enhancement. It also appears to be vertically squashed to some extent, but I doubt you’d ever notice without comparing screen captures side by side. However, it is actually quite a bit more detailed than the theatrical cut in places, which is a big positive.

I'll close by echoing my earlier thoughts about the visual quality. Donnie Darko is not a great looking film, but the transfer does an admirable job of replicating the intended look. This is all you can reasonably ask for, so while I can understand some of the negativity aimed at the US Blu-ray I can't say that I entirely agree with it given that it’s very similar to this UK release, which is definitely the best the film has ever looked on a home format by quite some margin.

 Donnie Darko

Audio


Another thing that 'haters' (to use the 'down with the kids' vernacular) seem to forget with all of their 'no better than the DVD' shenanigans is that video only comprises one half of the viewing experience. The audio on this Blu-ray comes in the form of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which is technically superior to anything we've had before (I believe the DVD releases generally included 448Kbps Dolby Digital soundtracks). Donnie Darko is quite a ‘talkie’ movie, so you’ll be glad to hear that dialogue generally comes across clearly and free from distortion. There are a couple of instances where it can be a little hard to decipher what’s being said, but these occur during moments where there’s a lot of background noise (such as the clean-up after the jet engine falls through Donnie’s bedroom roof) and are the exception rather than the rule.

As for ambient effects, well they’re plentiful right from the opening moments. Highlights include the storm that accompanies Donnie’s awakening on the hillside, the water rushing out of the flooded school, and the various chirping birds and insects that make Middlesex sound decidedly ‘suburban’. Discrete effects are somewhat limited, but there a few notable moments including Frank’s car driving past Donnie during the film’s opening, planes flying overhead, and thunder moving around the soundstage. Perhaps the best examples of all five of the main channels working in tandem are Frank the Rabbit’s foreboding messages of impending doom, which sound better (and creepier) than ever.

The LFE channel doesn’t have quite as much to do as in most films, but it throws out some solid bass when called upon (Donnie’s attempts to break the water ‘barrier’ in the bathroom spring to mind). Fans of 80s music will be delighted with the soundtrack, which features some of the decade’s most memorable tunes and is on fairly constant rotation in my car’s CD player along with Michael Andrews’ score, which also sounds fantastic on this Blu-ray. Unfortunately for me certain cues will forever be synonymous with car adverts, but them’s the breaks.

 Donnie Darko
As some of you may be aware, the director’s cut had a major audio overhaul. Director Richard Kelly chose to replace certain musical numbers with those he originally wanted but was unable to obtain clearance for, as well as augmenting certain scenes with additional effects. The biggest musical change comes right at the beginning of the film, as Donnie now cycles home to the tune of INXS rather than Echo & the Bunnymen. This opening scene has also been enhanced with the sound of chirping crickets and the like, while the liquid spears also have a more identifiable acoustic accompaniment. The soundtrack is more engaging than that of the theatrical cut, with more ambient effects and more aggressive use of the surround channels. Other than that, it's business as usual.

Extras


All of the extras are presented in standard definition and come with a disclaimer about their poor quality. Oddly the running times for many of the features are not displayed while they are playing, so I haven’t been able to include that information here with any regularity (although I have noted it when possible).

Disc One
Commentary with Director Richard Kelly: This is the same commentary track that graced the original DVD release. Although it's listed as a track by Richard Kelly, he's actually accompanied by the film's star, Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a pretty good-natured track that offers a fair bit of insight into the production, even if there are a number of pauses. This is certainly a good place for Donnie Darko initiates to start.

Commentary with Cast and Crew: Kelly is joined by actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Katherine Ross, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, James Duval and producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen for this group track. It's generally rowdier and less focussed than the first track, and Barrymore is particularly fond of interrupting. You won't learn as much about the filmmaking process with this track, but there is more anecdotal information and it's clear that there was a strong bond between those involved.

 Donnie Darko
They Made Me Do It (04:48 SD): This was present on Metrodome’s original UK release of the film. A team of fourteen of the UK’s leading graffiti artists was given six hours, forty two minutes and twelve seconds to come up with artwork inspired by the film, with the results exhibited in London over a twenty-eight day period.  Running for a little under five minutes, this featurette showcases the work, all to the tune of Gary Jules’ cover of ‘Mad World’.

Art Gallery: This is a series of still images from the first featurette, showing the completed artwork as exhibited in London. As usual you navigate through the gallery by using the buttons on your remote, and this is an easier way to get a look at the artwork featured in the earlier video segment.

Behind the Scenes: This consists of B-roll footage and cast and crew interviews, all in standard definition. The former is little more than a condensed version of the production diary featurette where we once again we go behind the scenes with the cast and crew, but at just over four minutes in length you’re not going to get too much from this. However, it was on the original release so it’s nice that it’s been included. The cast and crew interviews feature director Richard Kelly and the principal cast and crew. Although the interviews were included on the original release I’m glad that they were included, if only to give the uninitiated a little more insight into the production.

 Donnie Darko
Additional Scenes: There are twenty scenes in total, all with optional commentary from Richard Kelly. The director’s cut of the film actually reinstates most, if not all, of these scenes (or at least bits of them), so their inclusion in this set isn’t quite as worthy as one might expect.

Promos This section includes the film's original theatrical trailer and the 'Cunning Visions' infomercials (with optional Commentary). The Patick Swayze infomercials are pretty amusing, especially the second one which features commentary by Cunning Visions CEO Linda Connie, and infomercial director, Fabian Van Patten. It's odd to think that Swayze isn't with us anymore. Five original TV spots are also included.

The Philosophy of Time Travel: Pages of the book are included for viewers to peruse at their leisure.

Disc Two
Commentary with Director Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith: Clerks director Kevin Smith joins Kelly for this director's cut only chat track. While I enjoy Smith’s commentaries for his ViewAskew films, the greatness of those tracks hasn't translated to this one and there are frequent, lengthy periods of ‘dead air’. I also found that Smith’s inclusion led to all manner of irrelevant discussion, often resulting in important on-screen events going unmentioned. However, there are some good things to come out of the marrying of these writer/directors, most notably the discussions on the film’s comic book themes.

 Donnie Darko
Production Diary: Arriving with optional commentary by director of photography Stephen Poster, this takes us behind the scenes for a look at location shooting, and features appearances from most of the cast and crew (who are often seen clowning around together). The featurette is divided into sections, with title cards reminiscent of those in the film counting down the days left before the completion of principal photography. An interesting bit of trivia is that the film was shot over the same time span as the events depicted in the completed movie.

They Made Me Do It Too: This is a thirty minute retrospective featuring fans, critics, and even Richard Kelly himself (by way of the telephone). This is an interesting take on the whole Donnie Darko phenomenon that explores the reasons behind the film’s popularity with UK audiences, the central themes running throughout the movie, the impact it had on people’s lives, Metrodome’s marketing campaign, the huge success of the ‘Mad Word’ cover, and much more.

The Director's Cut Trailer: Same as the above.

Unfortunately the ‘Mad World’ music video isn't present. This is a bit of an odd omission given the popularity of the song in the UK (where it went to number one in the charts). Having said that, I've heard it so many times now that I'm sort of glad I didn't have to listen to it again.

 Donnie Darko

Overall


I don't care what anyone says, the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko is still the best version. Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ was such a fantastic opener to the original that I just didn’t take to INXS’ ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, even if it is the preferred choice of music. I also felt that the director's cut tried to ‘clarify’ certain points that either didn't need clarification or were best left open to interpretation. Even so, in either form Donnie Darko is still among my favourite features, so much so that I actually named the family rabbit Frank in honour of the film. It's just a pity that Richard Kelly has so far failed to recapture the magic of his first picture.

As for the Blu-ray set, well I'm pretty happy with it overall. The video is about as good as can reasonably be expected short of giving Richard Kelly a time machine and instructing him to shoot the whole thing again with a different DP (having both cuts on separate platters is another plus in my book), and the audio is a clear step up from the lossy tracks on the DVDs. Okay, so there aren't any news extras to speak of, but at least we got most of the available bonus material, which is an improvement over the US release. It’s also region free, so if you’re a massive Donnie Darko fan you might want to opt for Metrodome’s release wherever you reside as it’s currently the most complete package available on Blu-ray.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


Links: