Film Reviews

Donnie Darko – Limited Edition 4K UHD Blu-ray Review

Released in the United States in October of 2001 (although the UK did not receive a release until 12 months later), Donnie Darko is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a two-disc 4k release from ArrowVideo.  For its UHD bow, the set is compromised, mainly, of bonus features from earlier sets – with one exception we’ll cover in a while.

The film itself is presented in both cuts: the original theatrical release on disc one, and the 2004 director’s cut on the second disc.  Much of the extra 20 minutes in the latter cut is comprised of the deleted scenes that accompany the original version.  Other changes come with placement and choice of song through the film (INXS replacing Echo and the Bunnymen in the opening scene), additions of shots of Donnie’s eyes, and passages from the book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’.  If you have ever failed to understand the film’s story, the director’s cut holds your hand and spoon-feeds the underlying sci-fi concepts.  Although a pleasant screen presence, there is something about this cut that feels like a director attempting to confirm to the audience how clever he is.  The theatrical cut is far superior – particularly if you have never seen the film.

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Both cuts of the film are in pristine condition, with lovely, dreamlike cinematography – an effect that serves a purpose once the plot is understood.  Beyond this Donnie Darko, the story of a troubled teen (Jake Gyllenhaal) seeming to slowly lose his mind, while haunted by a full-size male figure in a rabbit outfit (James Duval, as Frank), remains the same marmite experience it has always been.  Firmly establishing itself in (roughly) the era of M Night Shyamalan’s emergence, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, and any number of other filmmakers, such as Michel Gondry, who often seemed less interested in telling stories, and more interested in playing with the audience, it can be a frustrating watch, as there are no characters for which to root, and a filmmaker yet to grow out of self-indulgence (understandable given he was around 24-25 when making this).

The bonus features kick off on disc one with ‘Deus Ex Machina – The Philosophy of Donnie Darko’.  This is the sole new production in the set.  At 85 minutes this is an excellent retrospective, made in 2016.  The most noteworthy aspect of this being the first extra to which we come, is that it really does highlight through the rest of the set how young everyone was in 2000 when this was being made.  As with the rest of the set, this feature assumes everyone watching now understands the story and the tangent universe concept, so this is to be approached only after watching the theatrical cut (which, in turn, should be watched before the director’s cut).  Along with the 4k presentation, this is one of only two reasons to purchase this version if other versions are owned already.

Next up is ‘The Goodbye Place’, an eight-minute short black and white film director Richard Kelly shot in 1996 whilst at the University of Southern California.  It features a young boy, abused by his mother, and visited by two elderly strangers – who appear, literally, out of nowhere – and guide him away from his situation.  The film implies this is the fate of all missing children, such as those shown on milk cartons in the USA.  The general unsettled nature of the work, along with the theme of being something of an outsider, with no-one understanding the boy, is a clear marker for the themes he would revisit in our main feature.

Disc one is rounded out with deleted scenes – complete with optional commentary from Kelly (32 minutes’ worth, and so more than simply footage later incorporated into the director’s cut), a trailer, and a pair of commentaries.  The first commentary features Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal.  Recorded just after 9/11, it is friendly and insightful.  Kelly is good value in discussing his influences, and Gyllenhaal has fresh memories from the set as to the direction he received.

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To reiterate, this commentary discusses, openly, the sci-fi concepts behind the film, leaving nothing left to discover if, inexplicably, the viewer went to this before the main feature.  Though, pre-director’s cut, this is the best interpretation of the work that would have been available.  The second commentary is Kelly joined by cast and crew: such as Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Katharine Ross, and James Duval.  It is light, funny, and recorded with everyone in the same room at the same time.  All of them sound happy to be there, and grateful to have worked on the project.

Disc two features a commentary from Kelly with fellow director Kevin Smith (who would have been about to work with him on Southland Tales).  There is lots of chat about Kelly’s background, but it is mainly focused on the film, and the theories behind it.  Featuring conversation about the industry, kids, the battles over the final cut, and the original marketing campaigns, it is light and very funny.  They are very open on the box office failure of this film, and it also features Smith relaying some fan questions, which they then go on to discuss in-depth.  It is both scene specific and very general, and Kelly is humble and equally fair about both cuts of the film, noting he is as proud of the theatrical cut, where he did have to make compromises.

Next up is a 53-minute production diary.  This is presented in 4:3 ratio, and in SD – effectively it is camcorder footage.  Deeply dull on its own, it is illuminated by a commentary from cinematographer Steven Poster, who is extremely engaging, and dryly funny.  This is complemented by archive interviews with 15 of the cast and crew, shot during filming.  Similarly filmed in standard definition, 15 interview snippets add up to just over 14 minutes.  It feels like what it is: an extra from the early days of DVD, when any kind of behind the scenes content was deemed acceptable.

‘They Made Me Do It, Parts I and II’ is a pair of shorts dealing with fandom for this film.  The first part is under five minutes in length, and deals with the creation of a graffiti exhibit on the theme of the film.  There’s nothing more entertaining that watching other people enjoying themselves is there?  Part two is British-centric and is around half an hour dealing with the cult of Donnie Darko.  Featuring interviews with then-Empire editor Colin Kennedy, a very young James King, and interspersed with audio of interviews conducted by a Frank-like figure from a London callbox, the main takeaway from this is the discussion on why British audiences, in general, got on far better with the film than much of the rest of the World.

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‘#1 Fan: A Darkomentary’ is the winner of a 2004 competition to get a short film onto the director’s cut.  At around 13 minutes, it’s by a man called Darryl Donaldson.  This is like a parody extra, as we get a see a grown man’s bedroom, and all the film-related stuff in it.  It is neither even remotely professional in standard, nor is it in any way enjoyable.  One wonders if there was a quota for over-stuffing a DVD extras list, post-The Lord of the Rings.  The set is rounded off with storyboard comparisons, B-roll footage (as exciting as it sounds), and a music video for ‘Mad World’.  A set of the infomercials created for Patrick Swayze’s character (with an optional commentary where we aren’t actually told who is commentating – it’s a man and a woman, they both seem nice: that’s all we can tell you.  There is a gallery of around 50 photographs from the set, along with trailers and TV spots.

In truth, it is a decent set for the completist and, although lacking in a great deal of new content, this puts everything in one place, with both cuts of the film, and gives it to the public in the highest available resolution.  Richard Kelly and Steven Poster, in particular, are very engaging speakers and, despite earlier comments about the longer cut of the film, display no discernible ego.  This is recommended for fans and completists, but takes far too much of a kitchen sink approach to be something most will enjoy, with several features that were barely worth the effort and at least one that is plain embarrassing,.

Donnie Darko is out now on Limited Edition 4K UHD Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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