Donnie Darko Blu-ray Review with D-BOXMarch 23, 2009
The cover for Fox's Blu-ray edition of Donnie Darko (2001) labels it an "edgy psychological thriller" which you may find a bit misleading once you have seen the movie. However, the description continues with "...a delusional high school student [is] visited by a demonic rabbit with eerie visions of the past and deadly predictions of the future." Now you might be wondering if this is a David Lynch film, but it is rather the feature debut from director/writer Richard Kelly (Southland Tales).
I had never heard of the flick before watching it on DVD in 2002 and immediately fell under the spell of the eerily surreal story of a 1988 that in many touches is very familiar to what I remember and on another level quite like an alternate universe. Jake Gyllenhaal plays title character Donnie who does have visions of an extremely creepy rabbit foretelling the end of the world making him wonder if he is insane, and beyond that I am torn as how to clarify the plot in detail without potentially giving too much away. Of course, there are many that would argue that would not be a bad thing as Donnie Darko can be a very inscrutable film.
It combines elements of the angst of not fitting into high school society, the cultural and political climate of the late 80's and time travel; Yup time travel. The film slides through conventional genres in a manner that is almost haphazard making it hard to easily classify much less digest in a single viewing. Donnie Darko works on multiple thematic levels though its core could best be described as science fiction. For those who have little tolerance for ambiguity, this is probably not a top recommendation, but, if you are so inclined, Kelly's film delivers an extremely satisfying emotional/psychological experience (though I would not call it a thriller) with precise mood and setting even if it is not easily understandable.
I should clarify that my comments are about the theatrical version as Kelly revisited the film only three years after release for a director's cut. The later version includes 21 minutes of additional footage (including new special effects), changes in editing and differences in the sound mix both with the use of music and ambient effects. While I am a big proponent of directors being able to realize their visions as best possible with extended/unrated/director's cuts of a film, this is a case where I think the changes feel more like meddling than improvement.
What I mentioned above about the film being inscrutable is exactly what Kelly wanted to remedy as he thinks the central plot points about Donnie should not be up for debate and has a definitive vision of how the film should be interpreted. Thus his director's cut removes much of the opaqueness of the narrative (making it more mundanely offbeat) and for my tastes has too much spoon feeding that in the process of clarification destroys the beautiful mystery the theatrical version delivers. Thankfully Fox had the foresight to not force us to choose as consumers and provide both versions allowing you to make your decision about which is preferable (though I would definitely recommend starting with the theatrical version).
Fox serves up a 1080p AVC encoded transfer maintaining the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 for Donnie Darko's Blu-ray debut. I was never astounded with the quality of the DVD versions and the opening scenes in high-def did not immediately impress either coming off flat, grainy and lacking dimensionality. Once I allowed my expectations to get in line with the film's low budget, I was able to appreciate the subtle benefits the HD transfer brings out.
Beneficially there is no digital artifacting or pixelation, and primary colors and skin tones are solidly reproduced. The most noticeable scenes with any "pop" to them are in special effect shots added to the director's cut. Negatively, the image is soft (I am blaming this on the low budget) with random print damage in the form of white speckles (which I am blaming on lack of effort to cleanup the negative), black levels are hit and miss from scene to scene and grain seems slightly obnoxious in some shots. This is not a film that will shine on Blu-ray, but it does represent the best it is likely to look on home video (though cleanup of the print damage would be nice).
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio fares somewhat better than its video counterpart with clear delivery of dialog and iconic 80's music (INXS, Echo and the Bunneymen, Tears For Fears). While by no means an immersive mix, the rears get sporadic use for ambient effects (more noticeably in the updated mix for the director's cut) and the sub kicks in for the songs and creepy atmosphere of Donnie's visions. This is not groundbreaking lossless audio but does what it needs to well enough. Additional audio is available in English and French Dolby Digital 2.0 with subtitles in French, Spanish and English (SDH).
D-BOX Motion Code
Most D-BOX appearances are of the subtle variety to compliment movements on-screen such as Donnie riding his bike, the distant rumbling of thunder or the bass beats of those classic 80s songs. These moments won't knock someone out of their chair but are of benefit to the movie watching experience.
More "in your face" D-BOX action is attached to building tension, the cornerstone of every "out of the ordinary" event that happens to Donnie. A large object falling through the roof of Donnie's home provides the most jarring blow that, combined with the score, will make your heart skip a beat as the chair rocks to life from complete calmness. Donnie tapping on a mirror with a knife and the several cuts to his strange "visions" provide contrasting sharp impact movement and progressively intense motion through a combination of vibration and vertical/horizontal movement.
Whether Donnie Darko would have been considered for D-BOX had it been published at another studio is anyone's guess as Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk it is not. At the same time, it is a nice departure to see D-BOX elevate a cerebral film even though the chair remains dormant far longer than not.
All the extras from the previous release of the Director's Cut are included on a second disc that turns out to be a DVD with all content in low quality and often blurry standard-def. The majority of the special features on the DVD tried my patience in that they seemed geared towards obsessed fans. However, I cannot discount my lack of interest being related to this being a film whose mystique I think should remain intact with minimal explanation.
Audio Commentaries We get not one, not two but three commentaries. Unless you are a diehard fan, this is probably overkill, but it is cool they are included for those that are interested. Two of the tracks are only available on the theatrical version with one involving Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal and the other hosting the director, a few producers and several cast members. The third is only available on the director's cut and Kelly participates yet again (I will never say the director is not committed to this film) with friend/director Kevin Smith of Clerks/Jay and Silent Bob fame.
The track with the cast and crew was the most laid back and humorous with much joking between participants. However, I found the director's cut commentary to be the most interesting even though I am not a fan of that version. Kelly's comments made me appreciate what he was trying to achieve with his reworking of the film and while I do not necessarily agree with his choices, I respect what he was going for more now.
Production Diary (52:54) Hand held camera footage of the filming of the movie with optional commentary from director of photography Steven Poster. I was not sure why you would want commentary on a special feature like this till I tried watching without it. With no explicit narrative, it is like viewing a home movie with little context as to what is happening at any particular point aside from a movie is being filmed. The commentary, while not the most interesting, makes watching this video palatable if not particularly intriguing.
They Made Me Do It Too The Cult of Donnie Darko (28:05) A selection of snippets from UK fans and critics explaining why they like the movie and what they think it means. It has a distinctive style with weird camera angles that compliments the film. Of the video based extras, this is the most interesting.
#1 Fan: A Darkomentary (13:18) Before the release of the Director version DVD, donniedarko.com held a contest for applicants to submit a video justifying why they were the biggest Darko fans. Well the winner was Darryl Donaldson, and he is most certainly a fan. I would almost find his submission amusing if it did not give me the creeps. Suffice to say this guy lives and breathes this film even having 20 plus copies of the DVD on a shelf.
Storyboard-to-Screen (7:58) A featurette where 4 scenes are played with storyboards on the top of the screen and the related actual footage on the bottom. This is only marginally interesting.
Trailer (1:02) Theatrical trailer for the Director's Cut.
Donnie Darko is an absorbing mysterious film that I plan to revisit many times in the future. If you have never seen it and are up for a mind-bending sci-fi/teen high school tale set in a strange yet familiar 1980's, definitely give this a shot. While I do not prefer the director's cut, I will not discount it either, but I would still recommend watching the theatrical version first. This Blu-ray package from Fox likely represents the best we expect from this film on home video for some time to come. While the video did not blow me away, it is a definite though subtle improvement over the DVDs with good sound and all the previous extras included.
Robert Searle, with D-BOX segment by Dan Bradley
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Donnie Darko (Collector's Edition)
Twentieth Century Fox
February 10, 2009
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio