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Having missed the original theatrical and DVD release of Donnie Darko I originally caught up with the film as a rental back in 2003. I was immediately smitten, with the film striking me as one of the most interesting pieces of work I’d seen in quite some time. I own a variety of different versions — the theatrical cut on US DVD, the theatrical and director's cuts on UK DVD, and the UK theatrical and director’s cut Blu-ray — but I've never been entirely happy with any of those from an image quality standpoint. With this in mind, when I recently learned of a German release that reportedly featured a newer transfer of the theatrical cut I decided to give it a whirl.

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.

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?

Video


Let me preface this section of the review by saying that Donnie Darko isn’t the prettiest film you’ll ever see on account of the original photography, so don’t go expecting miracles on Blu-ray. The film was shot on a meagre four-and-a-half-million dollar budget and the director of photography intentionally used a film stock traditionally reserved for night shooting, which lends the picture a soft, dream-like quality.

Comparing this Ascot Elite release to the UK Blu-ray doesn’t reveal night and day differences, but differences are present. The most interesting thing about this version is that it appears to be derived from whatever new scan was taken when Richard Kelly prepared his director’s cut. If you own the UK or US Blu-rays containing both versions of the film you may have noticed that said director’s cut looks marginally better than the theatrical cut simply by virtue of having a newer transfer. Unfortunately the director’s cut was subject to unnecessary low-pass filtering in both territories, which robbed the image of some of the finer details. The good news here is that the German theatrical version not only utilises the newer transfer, it does so without heavy-handed noise reduction, making this unquestionably the most detailed release of the film yet.

As much of a visual improvement as the older Blu-rays were over the DVDs, there were still a number of niggling issues that let the side down somewhat. I’ve already mentioned the visual superiority of the director’s cut, but the filtering employed for that version of the film left unsightly tramlines at the top and bottom of the frame. These are nowhere to be seen on the German disc. The lack of filtering allows the image to retain more of the natural grain, which lends a more filmic appearance to the picture. Although colour rendition appears similar to the other director’s cut releases, reds do look slightly more natural overall. Blacks are still a little on the muddy side, but again this would seem to be an unavoidable by-product of the original cinematographic process, as would the sometimes less than perfect contrast.

Compression appears to be marginally better than previous Blu-rays, if still imperfect, but on the plus side I didn’t spot any of the edge ringing that afflicted the older versions. Image geometry and framing are the same as the director’s cut rather than the old theatrical cut, but this makes sense when you consider that it uses the same transfer. The tell-tale sign is some minor cropping at the left-hand edge of the frame, which has five black pixels’ worth of dead space. There are also still a fair number of film artefacts on show, although none of them are particularly distracting. More annoying is the single-pixel wide blue line that runs from the top to the bottom of the far right-hand-side of the image frame. It is most noticeable during the opening credits, becoming less apparent after Donnie arrives home from his bike ride, but if you look closely you’ll see that it remains present throughout and is more obvious during darker scenes.

While I strongly disagree with those who claimed that the previous Blu-ray releases looked no better than the DVD versions I can see why some people were disappointed, but with this edition we finally have a high-definition upgrade in which people can have confidence. I'll close by echoing my earlier sentiments about Donnie Darko’s inherent visual limitations, but this Ascot Elite release represents the best looking Blu-ray presentation yet.

Audio


The disc includes DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks in both the original English language and German. Personally I can’t see why anyone (including Germans) would want to listen to a dub, but it is the default track for the disc. Because the film immediately begins to play upon insertion I didn’t notice it had defaulted to the German track until the first piece of dialogue, but the discovery was coupled with a sense of relief as it explained why the opening Echo and the Bunnymen track sounded off to my ears. Yep, the German track is incorrectly pitched. Switching to the English track and starting the film again I could immediately tell that all was as it should be. Indeed, the English track sounds quite a bit fuller than the German track, although I concede that’s probably just because of variances between volume and pitch.
 
Donnie Darko is quite a ‘talkie’ movie, so you’ll be glad to hear that dialogue is clear and free from distortion. Moments where dialogue is unintelligible are those in which background chatter is unimportant (such as during the clean-up after the jet engine falls through Donnie’s bedroom roof), which is more of a characteristic of the sound design than any issues with clarity. Indeed, previously indistinct lines of dialogue are now perfectly audible, such as Grandma Death’s early exchange with Donnie.

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 Donnie’s flooded school, chirping birds, insects, and various other suburban sounds that define Middlesex’s decidedly ‘suburban’ environment. Discrete effects are somewhat limited, but there a few notable moments including Frank’s car driving past Donnie during the film’s opening moments, 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 suitable creepy.

The LFE channel doesn’t have quite as much to do here as in most films, but it throws out some solid bass when called upon. The jet engine crashing through the Darko’s roof and Donnie’s attempts to break the water barrier in the bathroom both spring to mind as good examples of decent low end. Fans of eighties music will be delighted with the soundtrack, which features some of the decade’s most memorable tunes from the likes of Tears for Fears, INXS, Duran Duran, Echo and the Bunnymen and Joy Division. Michael Andrews’ haunting score also sounds fantastic. When it comes to Donnie Darko’s audio mix I think perhaps I was a little conservative with my praise in previous reviews. It’s a really great track that is responsible for much of the film’s atmosphere, and as such it is deserving of high praise.

It’s worth mentioning that switching the audio track from German to English activated the German subtitles, so I recommend hitting the top menu button on your remote just as the film starts (the disc includes a rudimentary menu) and setting the language options from there. The disc appears to ignore the player’s default audio/subtitle settings, or at least it did on my player.

Extras


In stark contrast to the feature-laden UK and US releases of the film, this German disc includes only the original English and German-language theatrical trailers, along with a trailer for Ong-Bak. All trailers are presented in standard-definition and look pretty rough, so you aren’t going to be buying this disc for its supplemental features.

Overall


For my money the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko is still the best version of the film, so I was particularly happy with this release in spite of the fact that it’s still a relatively ‘ugly’ feature. If I were to review the UK version today it wouldn’t score as highly as it did back in 2010 because the overall standard of catalogue releases has improved dramatically since then. This will hopefully explain the rationale behind awarding the same overall video score, but simply put the film has never looked better on a home format. On the other hand the audio impressed me more than it did back when I reviewed Metrodome’s UK edition, so I have bumped that score up accordingly. The lack of bonus material could deter many people from picking this disc up over one of the feature-packed releases, but if like me you rarely watch extras and are simply interested in the best available AV presentations of your favourite films, this could prove to be an attractive proposition.

* Note: The images below 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.

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