Fifteen years before Stranger Things combined science fiction, Spielbergian 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 Katharine Ross, and television favorite 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 upgrades their special edition set for Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko to 4K UHD Blu-ray, presenting both the theatrical and director's cut of the film in 4K 2160/24hz with Dolby Vision HDR, each presentation on its own triple-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Arrow is sourcing the presentations from the same 4K restoration they used for their previous Blu-ray edition, the theatrical cut sourced entirely from the 35mm original negative. The director's cut uses the same base restoration the theatrical cut uses, but the additional/alternate material is all sourced from a 35mm digital intermediate. Arrow does not include a standard Blu-ray in this edition.
I should point out first that there is an issue with the initial printing: the theatrical version (disc one) may not playback properly on most UHD players; it doesn't playback properly on mine and freezes around the "cellar door" scene in the last act, and I assume this is where a layer change occurs. Arrow has a replacement program already in place (their form linked here), and have plans to ship the replacements out by mid-June at the earliest. While I am still going to go ahead and review the disc (and I will mention it again) please keep this issue in mind. I will then update once I have the corrected disc. I did not run into any issues with the director's cut.
Based on what I was able to view (at the moment) Arrow delivers a wonderful little upgrade over their already impressive Blu-ray edition. It's a fairly grainy looking film, which the Blu-ray handled well on its own, but it looks so much finer and cleaner here. The overall level of detail doesn't offer a substantial improvement I have to say, though this could just come down to the film stock used and the intended look of the film; director of photography Steven Poster does cover this in the supplements. The original Blu-ray was very clean digitally, encoded well with no problematic noise, yet this presentation does come off subtly cleaner, with a more photographic look.
Damage is not an issue outside of some minor fluctuations early on (they were there on the Blu-ray as well). I don't recall a single spec or blemish coming up outside of that. For the director's cut, when jumping between theatrical and new footage there is a subtle change in quality, grain getting a little thicker, but nothing all that intrusive; you barely notice most of the time. There are new digital inserts as well for the director's cut, and these stick out because they have more polished, digital look. I assume they were also done in high-definition as there are some minor artifacts present.
From a general stand point I think this 4K image does offer a decent improvement, delivering a cleaner rendering of the film's grain, throwing out some sharper looking colours, as well as with a cleaner digital image. Still, these improvements are minor in the end since the Blu-ray was a stand-out itself. Where the real improvements come in is through the use of Dolby Vision. It is a dark film, and it does look a bit darker here, but dynamic range is so much better within this presentation, getting some finer shades of black, the shadows looking amazing. Highlights are also improved upon, the highlights around Frank the rabbit's costume being a stand-out in some of the darker shots of him, along with that chandelier in the Darko household's foyer. Just the jump from bright to dark in a number of sequences is stunning (daylight scenes with shadows, for example), and there is no sign of bleeding or ringing or anything along those lines. It's really incredible and I'm disappointed there is no adequate way to show this through screen grabs (which are unfortunately all SDR).
Again, I could not view the last 20-minutes or so of the theatrical cut so I can't say if the stunning image carries on through to the end, though based on the similar material in the director's cut I'm sure it will turn out fine, once Arrow gets those replacement discs out. Based on what I could see, Arrow has delivered and then some, taking full advantage of the format to offer the best possible representation of this dark film on home video. I was really beyond pleased with it.
UPDATE (July 12th, 2021): Arrow has started sending out replacement discs and I received mine last week. The replacement played back fine without issue and the quality of the presentation is excellent, on par with the rest of the film.
(The SDR screen grabs below come from source disc for the Director's Cut, have been downscaled from 3840x2160 to 1920x1080, and converted to JPG files)
Arrow yet include DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround tracks for both films. Doing quick comparisons between the old Blu-ray and this edition the soundtracks sound the same. From the article on the original Blu-ray edition:
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's previous Blu-ray edition should have satisfied fans of the film, providing both cuts along with carrying over most content from previous releases and adding some of their own. I did a scan through the material just to refresh my memory, but will simply copy from the original article.
Disc one presents the theatrical cut, and the content is laid out similariy:
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 disc houses the director's cut, and it replicates the disc found in the previous Blu-ray set:
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.
Arrow also carries over the hard-bound book to this edition:
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).
While the photos within the book appear to be the same, some of the artwork is different, fitting the style of this new package.
The set also comes with a double-sided poster and six collectivble postcards, but these both differ from the previous set. The new poster makes use of the new artwork (plus another poster on the other side) and the postcards simply present stills from the film, whereas the Blu-ray release presented them with new artwork on one side and puzzle pieces on the other, delivered in an envelope addressed to Roberta Sparrow. I liked that little touch and am a little let down that wasn't carried over to this edition.
Still an impressive set of extras, though, and all of the material should keep fans busy.
Arrow takes full advantage of the 4K UHD format and Dolby Vision to deliver the best representation I've yet seen on home video for this very dark looking film, offering a notable improvement over their already impressive looking Blu-ray edition. Arrow also ports over all of the on-disc content of that edition along with their excellent book. A very easy recommendation, even if you still have to send away for the replacement disc.