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.
Arrow Video gives Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko the deluxe treatment on Blu-ray in this 4-disc dual-format set, presenting both the theatrical cut and director’s cut. Each version of the film is given their own dual-layer Blu-ray disc (and dual-layer DVD) and presented in the aspect ratio of around 2.35:1 (enhanced for widescreen televisions on the DVD). Arrow has done a new 4K restoration of the theatrical cut, scanned from the original 35mm negative. This new restoration was also used for the basis of the director’s cut, with scenes exclusive to this cut coming from a 35mm digital intermediate element.
The film has a somewhat softer look that I believe is intentional, or at the very least a byproduct of the film stock used (director of photography Steven Poster gets into detail about this in the supplements), but even then Arrow’s new restoration and encode is beyond impressive. Their releases most always retain a natural, filmic look (even Microwave Massacre of all things) but this one really goes the extra mile. It’s a fairly grainy looking film but the rendering of it is so spot on, so natural, even in the film’s many darker, low-lit scenes. Despite that faint softness to the look of the film I still found detail levels strong, textures are good, and objects are clearly defined, with no signs of ringing or noise around them. Black levels are very good, offering strong shadow detail in the dark scenes, and colours look to be saturated accurately, with some strong blues and greens popping up.
As I mentioned previously the director’s cut makes use of the same restoration for most of the film but the additional sequences come from a different source. Though these added materials didn’t go through the same 4K scan and restoration I don’t think anything sticks out all that drastically in comparison to the rest of the film other than maybe grain may not be as finely rendered. Some of the digital inserts (the quick cuts to an eye or an image of the bunny, as well as the inserts of text from the central book in the film) stick out a bit more because they have that cleaner digital look and that film texture is mostly gone. Outside of those rather minor differences I still don’t think there is a distracting difference.
With the lack of any noticeable damage the end product is a real stunner of a presentation. It’s a very filmic, very sharp image, easily one of Arrow’s best.
(The screen grabs below come from the director's cut. I found the common scenes between each version looked the same.)
Both versions of Donnie Darko come with lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtracks on the Blu-rays (Dolby Digital 5.1 on the DVDs) and other than some rather startling audio adjustments within the film itself (like the film opening with INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart” in place of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” a change that, even if the INXS song was always intended to open the film, feels wrong) I’d say both tracks sound generally the same, at least in terms of mix and quality.
Dialogue is very clear and easy to hear, and there is some noticeable movement and positioning between the speakers when lines are spoken. It is a rather “talky” film but seeing how this is still, at heart, horror/sci-fi film (the director’s cut leaning heavier towards the sci-fi side of things) it’s no surprise that the sound design to the film is very active. There is plenty going on, from jet engines dropping from the sky (twice) to mysterious portals appearing out of nowhere, the mix is active and open, spreading activity cleanly and naturally between the five speakers with excellent clarity and range. There are some nice subtle low volume effects and really impressive highs during the film’s louder moments. Bass is also strong but managed well as to not drown out other aspects of the presentation.
The terrific score also sounds wonderful here. It’s mixed adequately through the front and rear speakers, with great little effects moving about. Yet the track’s strongest aspects are the more subtle and surreal effects, creeping around the viewer with the PTA meeting and one of the Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) seminars being the stand-outs. Everything together it’s a real sharp and pleasing mix.
Arrow really goes all out with this edition, delivering a sharp looking box set release loaded with a staggering number of special features. In all honesty I felt kind of overwhelmed going through everything. I think Arrow aimed to carry over most everything from previous releases of both versions of the film, while adding their own stamp to it, but other than some general behind-the-scenes material there admirably isn’t a lot repeated between the features, and it comes in at the film from a number of interesting directions.
As mentioned the film has been released in a sort of box set, including two digipak cases, one for each version of the film (holding both a Blu-ray and DVD both containing the same content) with their own unique artwork inspired by the film, and then a hardbound book. The first holder contains the theatrical cut and then a number of features, most of which pertain to the production.
Two audio commentaries have been carried over from the original Fox release, and I’m guessing the two have made it onto other releases available around the world. The first track features director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal while the other features, well, just about everyone else.
The Kelly/Gyllenhaal is a rich one, both very involved in the discussions. There is a lot of backstory to the production and getting it off the ground, which of course leads to the eventual casting of Gyllenhaal (though not mentioned here, elsewhere it comes up that Jason Schwartzman was originally attached to this film, which actually led to Drew Barrymore coming on to produce). Gyllenhaal talks about how he saw the character and the film, and the two share stories, joke around, and just carry on a generally fun conversation. When the film originally came out many dismissed it as a confused mess with no clear path, but what this commentary does show is that yes, Kelly had a very clear idea of what the film was about and where it was going. The mysterious and admittedly confusing nature of the film was more born out of necessity in pleasing their distributor, who wanted it trimmed down. But Kelly does talk about the story here, talks about deleted scenes (which are included as separate features while also appearing in the director’s cut) what they added, and even talks about his influences, which range from comic books to Stephen King. The filmmakers who have influenced his style, compositions, and framing also come up. It’s a fascinating track, very dense in content, and quite a bit of fun.
The second track is a stacked affair, featuring a number of participants from the cast and crew, including Kelly again along with actor/producer Drew Barrymore. Producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen also appear along with a number of actors, including Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Beth Grant, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, and James Duvall (I think I got everyone). All participants have been recorded together in what sounds like a very large room (the audio doesn’t always carry well). Barrymore and Kelly are the primary participants but everyone else pops in to share details about the shoot, their thoughts on it and their characters, and how they enjoyed the experience (Duvall admits it to being a pretty easy job for the most part, since all he had to do was wear the costume and move around). It can go a little bit of the rails at times, with people speaking over one another, but getting the various perspectives outside of Kelly’s makes it a worthwhile track. Still, I think I prefer the previous one.
Moving on to video features Arrow includes a new feature (which did appear on the UK edition as well), a very extensive 85-minute making-of documentary called Deus Ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko. It contains a number of behind-the-scenes clips throughout but it is mostly a talking-heads documentary, featuring members of the crew including Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, and production designer Alec Hammond. Of the cast only James Duval appears.
The documentary does cover a lot of details about the production that were covered in the previous commentaries, though some details held back (for some reason) from the commentary show up here, like Jason Schwartzman’s original casting. The advantage of the documentary, though, is that it goes over the production, including more details about specific sequences, in order of its shooting timeline, allowing us to see the growing pains and adjustments that had to be made within the tight schedule and surprisingly limited budget. We also get a far more wide range of perspectives here, the most valuable new contribution being from Poster on the film’s look. It also gets into how the director’s cut came about.
Arrow then includes The Goodbye Place, Kelly’s black-and-white 1996 short film about an abused young boy and his desire to escape to another world, which I guess could be the afterlife. It is 9-minutes and quite rough around the edges, but his visuals are there (in some form) and shares some similarities to Donnie Darko.
We then get 20 deleted and extended scenes, totaling around 32-minutes. These look to be upscales (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re direct rips of what were used on the original Fox DVD). Some of these (though not all) did make their way back into the director’s cut, but a handful (like a clear shot of Darko’s fate) were kept on the cutting room floor. Kelly also provides an optional commentary, explaining why the scenes were cut (either time restrictions or a desire to keep things a little more subtle) and pointing out the scenes that were hardest to trim out.
This disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer.
The second Blu-ray and DVD, which contains the director’s cut, then presents the remaining features. On this disc we get yet another audio commentary, this one featuring Kelly and a guest commentator, director Kevin Smith. This one was found initially on the original DVD release for the director’s cut. Smith is a bit of an odd choice as a co-commentator as the two directors, despite having interests in similar things, couldn’t be more different from one another, which becomes very evident as the track wears on. Yet I do have to say this actually lends it a bit of charm. The two really just sit and talk about the film, what it and certain individual moments mean, the cult it has built, and even go over some of the changes. Smith has even taken questions from fans and he asks them to Kelly during the latter half of the track. Smith also talks about his initial reactions to the movie (comparing them to his reactions to Atom Egoyan films) and does question Kelly on how he develops his films. This leads to some rather interesting discussions between the two about what they focus on when making a film, how much they feel they need to lead their audiences, and also talk about what it’s like dealing with studios and marketing. Kelly also talks about the production of the original DVD and how he was able to get the rather lavish special edition he did for a film that did bomb during its initial box office run. Smith can be crude, and I have no doubt there will be many habitually rolling their eyes at some of his comments, but I don’t think that really takes away from the overall content of the track, which proves to be rather absorbing.
We next get some on-set footage with the production diary, a 52-minute collection of footage from the set, offering a behind-the-scenes look at a number of scenes from the film. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly revelatory about the footage but it’s probably worth watching with the optional commentary by Steven Poster who offers technical background information to go along with what we’re watching.
There is also about 14-minutes’ worth of archival interview excerpts with members of the cast and crew, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McConnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Katharine Ross, Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry, Casey La Scala, and Steven Porter. They’re all quick interviews with everyone sharing general thoughts about the film.
Arrow then starts looking at the popularity and cult behind the film. First we get the 5-minute They Made Me Do It, which looks at a graffiti art show featuring works influenced by the film, which is then followed by the 30-minute They Made Me Do It II: The Cult of “Donnie Darko,”. This one gathers together interviews with a number of UK fans (from artists and filmmakers to random fans) and examines how the film has connected with its audience.
The next feature is easily the most bizarre one. #1 Fan: A Darkomentary is apparently the result of an online contest. Back in 2004 when the director’s cut was doing a theatrical run, the official film website held a contest asking fans to create a documentary explaining why they are the film’s #1 fan, the prize being that the winning film would appear on the then-upcoming DVD release for the director’s cut. This 13-minute film, put together by Darryl Donaldson, was obviously the winner, leading me to wonder what the other films were like. I’m going to assume this film is being a little tongue-in-cheek (and you know what they say about the word “assume”), but it’s very hard to tell. I guess it is possible that a fan would hang a model jet engine from their bedroom ceiling, or that a fan would have a shelf full of nothing but Donnie Darko DVDs (not even different editions), or that a fan might actually ask the questions to James Duval that Donaldson does here, or that a fan would do what Donaldson does when he meets Kelly, or that a fan would be embarrassed to discover that the book within the film is actually not a real book. I guess that’s all possible. Maybe. But then I do doubt anyone taking this seriously would have left in the embarrassing material that is left in here, like an audience laughing over his belief the book in the film was real. Whatever the case, though, it’s amusing.
Arrow next provides some storyboard comparisons running 8-minutes total, presenting the storyboards over top of the finished scene. There is then about 4-and-a-half minutes worth of B-roll footage (a behind-the-scenes compilation).
We also get a compilation of the Cunning Visions infomercials within the film. I thought these were brilliantly put together, using some of the worst sins of video editing equipment of the time, so I’m thrilled they are included here in the entirety so I can view them on their own, outside of the context of the film. The feature also comes with a mock commentary, the participants in character, pretending to have put this video together. Your mileage may vary on whether you find the track funny or not. The footage runs about 6-minutes.
The disc then closes with a music video for Michael Andrews’ and Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” that appears in the film, which is then followed by a navigable image gallery, a trailer for the director’s cut, and then TV spots for the original film.
This is all great but, oh man, the real gem to this release is the 90-page hardbound book, just full of content. You first get a foreword by Jake Gyllenhaal going over what the film is to him, followed by an essay by Nathan Rabin about the film’s Hughes influences, its presentation of adolescence (which does feel genuine and real) and its style. There is then a reprint of a 2001 article by Mark Olsen from an issue of Film Comment about this promising new director, Richard Kelly, and his debut feature. This is then followed by a very lengthy reprint of an interview between Kelly and Kevin Conroy Scott, which covers the film and its production, but is best when Kelly talks about how he got into filmmaking (I was amused by his story of constantly calling MTV trying to figure out who directed this “Janie’s Got a Gun” video (it was, of course, David Fincher). There’s then a wonderful tribute to Patrick Swayze by Jamie Graham, who looks at his varied career and roles, and then Anton Bitel then looks at Kelly’s career since Donnie Darko, from the director’s cut to Southland Tales and then The Box, offering a defense to that much maligned last film (I haven’t seen it yet).
Arrow’s books are always great and this one is exceptional. You also get a double-sided fold-out poster, presenting the original poster art on one side and Arrow’s new artwork on the other. There is also an envelope addressed to Roberta Sparrow, containing cards featuring new artwork inspired by the film (the reverse side presents a puzzle piece of sorts that makes up Arrows new cover art when put together). This all then comes in a rather gorgeous looking box set, sturdily built. My only complaint about this entire set are the disc holders themselves, which are needlessly complicated in removing and placing the discs thanks to some spring-like design (the Universal Back to the Future set uses a similar design). Other than that, it’s a gorgeous looking set.
I think a lot of the material is stuff that has appeared on other releases, the one 85-minute documentary probably being the lone new item. But it’s all good material, and getting it all in one place, after being spread out over other editions, is a definite boon. It was a bit overwhelming admittedly (three audio commentaries!) but I enjoyed going through the content. It’s all quite good.
After so many previous DVD and Blu-ray releases around the world, this is, with no doubt, the definitive edition for Donnie Darko. The presentation for both versions of the film is really incredible, one of Arrow’s most impressive ones, and the quantity and quality of the supplements are impressive. With it all packed into one gorgeous looking box set it’s certainly an enticing set, and one I have no doubt fans will be thrilled with.