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I WANT YOU TO WATCH THE MOVIE SCREEN. THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT TO SHOW YOU.

Fifteen years before Stranger Things combined science-fiction, Spielberg-ian touches and 80s nostalgia to much acclaim, 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 Katherine Ross, and television favourite 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.
(Taken from the official synopsis.)

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 Donnie Darko. It’s worth noting that this review will contain discussion of some of the more involved plot elements, so those of you who want to remain completely ‘spoiler free’ may want to skip this section of the and head directly to 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 therapy sessions, 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 foretells 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 exist.

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 erratic behaviour, Donnie tries to rationalise his strange visions with the aid of 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?

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've owned and indeed reviewed a number of editions over the past ten years or so — the theatrical cut on US DVD, the theatrical and director's cuts on UK DVD, and theatrical and director’s cut Blu-rays from various territories — but I've never been entirely happy with any of those from an image quality standpoint. The German release from Ascot Elite was the best of an average bunch, but the sad demise of UK rights holders Metrodome has afforded Arrow Video the chance to bring their newly restored version to market. Read on for a detailed look at the technical aspects of Arrow's release.

Video


Let me preface this section of the review by saying that Donnie Darko isn’t the most attractive 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. With that said, Arrow's new 4K transfer does reveal significant gains over previous releases.

As mentioned above, the Ascot Elite release was previously the best available version of the theatrical cut from a visual standpoint, but even that offered only a marginal improvement over the other releases. While Arrow’s new 4K transfer doesn’t completely transform the look of the film it does reveal hitherto unforeseen levels of detail across the board, surpassing even the previous director’s cut releases of the film, which generally looked better than the theatrical versions. For the first time ever you can really make out the grain structure, and minute details that used to be indistinct are now readily visible. In some close-ups you can even see Jake Gyllenhaal’s contact lenses! The image has also been slightly reframed for this release to reveal a little more information, while geometry is also better than previous versions.
 
General image characteristics are broadly the same as ever, ensuring that the original look and feel is retained. There are subtle changes to the palette, which looks more natural overall, while contrast is flatter than previous versions. This is actually to the film’s advantage as it helps reign in some of the blooming whites and improves the black levels. Overall brightness remains about the same. Compression is markedly better than previous Blu-rays, which is to be expected given that David McKenzie did the encoding. There are also far fewer film artefacts on show than in previous releases. In fact, I don’t really recall any noteworthy examples.

While I disagree with those who claimed that previous Blu-ray releases looked no better than upscaled DVD, I can understand why some people were disappointed. However, with this new Arrow release we finally have a truly worthy high-definition upgrade. It’s proof positive that, with a little bit of care and attention, a quality image can be obtained from even the least glamorous looking films. It goes without saying that this easily eclipses all previous releases to become the best home video presentation yet. The above comments also apply to the director’s cut of the film, which looks almost identical to the theatrical cut.

Audio


The disc includes the film's original 5.1 mix encoded as DTS-HD Master Audio. 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 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 extremely potent 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. In all honesty 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.

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 to make the sound of chirping crickets and the like more obvious, while the liquid spears also have a more identifiable acoustic accompaniment. The director’s cut 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


Some of the recent Arrow titles I’ve reviewed have been uncharacteristically thin on the ground extras-wise, but thankfully that is not the case here. The two disc set is packed to the gills with extras, both new and old. Along with all of the previously available material, such as audio commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews and more, we get a brand new retrospective documentary featuring Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick, Steven Poster and James Duval that runs for over an hour. It’s a great companion piece to the film and provides a lot of information about the genesis of the project, casting, filming and reception. Another new inclusion is one of Kelly’s short films. When you combine the new additions with the previously available extras you have a really satisfying collection of supplements that should offer hours of enjoyment. A complete list of bonus material can be found below.

  • Audio commentary by writer-director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal on the Theatrical Cut
  • Audio commentary by Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross and James Duval on the Theatrical Cut
  • Audio commentary by Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith on the Director’s Cut
  • Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko
  • The Goodbye Place, Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films
  • The Donnie Darko Production Diary, an archival documentary charting the film’s production with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster
  • Twenty deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Kelly
  • Archive interviews with Kelly, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry and Casey La Scala, and cinematographer Steven Poster
  • Three archive featurettes: They Made Me Do It, They Made Me Do It Too and #1 Fan: A Darkomentary
  • Storyboard comparisons
  • B-roll footage
  • Cunning Visions infomercials
  • Music video: Mad World by Gary Jules
  • Galleries
  • Trailers
  • TV spots
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by Nathan Rabin
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp

Overall


As I’ve said in previous reviews, for my money the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko is still the best version of the film but some margin. I feel that the director's cut tries to clarify certain points that either don’t require clarification or are best left open to interpretation. I’ve never been able to get on with INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ replacing Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’ as the opening musical number either, even if it is the preferred choice of music. Even so, in either form Donnie Darko is still among my favourite features, so much so that I actually named the family rabbit Frank (may he rest in peace) in honour of the film. As with The Matrix, Fight Club and Oldboy, Donnie Darko is one of those features that I almost wish I could forget, just so I could experience it again for the first time. It's just a pity that Richard Kelly has so far failed to recapture the magic of his first picture.
 
Although initially sceptical as to whether Donnie Darko could look much better on home video due to the limitations of the original cinematographic process, I’m extremely happy to have been proved wrong. Arrow’s 4K restoration is fantastic! I still wouldn’t describe it as attractive, but it looks far more filmic than what’s come before. The audio is also pretty great, arguably sounding cleaner and more robust than ever, while the bonus material is both plentiful and of high quality. Regardless of whether you go for this limited edition set of the standard release, this one comes highly recommended!

* 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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