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Featured Blu-ray Review: Donnie Darko (10th Anniversary Edition)

August 4th, 2011

Donnie Darko (10th Anniversary Edition) - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Writer / director Richard Kelly was only 26 years old when he made Donnie Darko. That still amazes me. The film earned excellent reviews, but never found an audience during its short limited release. A few years later, the film was re-released as a Director's Cut, which only did marginally better at the box office. On the other hand, the film has had a much more lucrative run on the home market. Ten years after the film's initial release, it is coming out on a anniversary edition Blu-ray, but is it worth the upgrade?

The Movie

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the titular Donnie Darko, whom we meet lying in the middle of the road after a bout of sleepwalking. That's not his only trouble; he also has visions of a demonic looking rabbit, Frank, who tells him the world will end in less than a month. Shortly after being told that, a jet engine crashes through his bedroom, which is weird, because there were no jets flying overhead and no airliners report losing an engine. Fortunately, he was asleep on a golf course at the time, having being drawn there by his demon bunny. His parents, Rose and Eddie, and his two sisters, Elizabeth and Samantha, are relived to see him walk home, as they first thought he died in the accident.

At school the next day, he meets Gretchen Ross, the new girl in school and there's an instant connection. She's dealing with a pretty bad family situation (her step-father tried to kill her mother, then fled) so she's in need of a friend. However, as the countdown continues, Frank's instructions become more extreme, while his hallucinations take on new twists, this despite the work of his therapist, Dr. Lilian Thurman. Meanwhile Donnie's day-to-day interactions with the people at school also deteriorate and he has to deal with bullies, obnoxious teachers, odious motivational speaker, etc. with only a couple inspirational teachers on his side.

When Frank mentions time travel to Donnie, Donnie talks to his science teacher, Dr. Monnitoff, who points him to a book by Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. "Grandma Death". The more he learns of the "Philosophy of Time Travel", the more he thinks his getting a grasp on his situation and the more insistent Frank becomes.

And of course, there's the countdown to worry about.

Donnie Darko is one of the more confusing movies ever made, but in a good way. It practically demands to be seen twice, possibly immediately after seeing it the first time. There are entire websites dedicated to arguing about what particular parts of the film mean what, and how the two parallel universes / alternate time-lines interact / match-up. It is certainly worthy of the effort. The plot is convoluted enough that watching it again and again will allow the viewer to notice new things each time, while the writing is solid enough that it feels like it is following self-consistent rules. (Many times you get the feeling the writers are making it up as they go along.) Richard Kelly was also aided by a cast, which is phenomenal, especially considering this was his feature-length debut.

The director's cut is 20 minutes longer and does explain more and helps set forth more concrete rules. For most people this was helpful and the film did get slightly better reviews. That said, others preferred the more ambiguous nature of the original cut. Fortunately, this Blu-ray has both versions, so you can choose.

On a side note, I mentioned how amazing the cast is. There are a couple minor roles that left me scratching my head wondering who that was. There's one called "Dorky Girl" in the credits that at first looked like a combination of Alia Shawkat and Ashley Tisdale, more the latter than the former. It is Ashley Tisdale. Almost immediately after that, there's a character called Lanky Kid, and while I couldn't immediately place the face, when I saw is name in the credits, Jerry Trainor, of course, the big brother from iCarly.

The Extras

This four-disc set is loaded with extras, including two versions of the movie. The first disc also has three audio commentary tracks, two on the theatrical version and one on the Director's Cut. The first is with Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal, the second is with a bunch of the cast, and the final one is with Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith. All three are worth listening to, and since the movie itself has high replay value, fans of the movie will be spending a lot of time with the Blu-ray. On the other hand, this is the only Blu-ray disc of the four.

Over on disc two we find a 53-minute long Production Diary, with optional audio commentary by Steve Poster, the cinematographer. It starts with location scouting, but also includes the behind-the-scenes of specific scenes. Very interesting. (I like how they use the Intercards to countdown the shoot. It's very reminiscent of the film itself.) They Made Me Do It Too is a 28-minute long featurette on the fans reaction to the film in the U.K. and how it has developed a loyal following after its box office failure there. There are eight minutes of Storyboard to Screen comparisons. #1 Fan: A Darkomentary is a contest-winning short film about the world's most obsessed Donnie Darko fan.

The third disc includes the theatrical version of the film on DVD, with the two audio commentaries also seen on the first disc. There are 20 deleted and extended scenes, with audio commentary tracks, but many are rather short and it would have been nice to have a play-all button. There is a music video for "Mad World" by Gary Jules. Cunning Visions has six minutes of clips from Jim Cunningham informercials with optional in-character audio commentary from the director and the CEO of the company. That's it for the featurettes, but there are also galleries of the website, concept art, a production still, as well as text based bios of the cast & crew and the liner notes from the soundtrack.

The final disc is a digital copy of the movie.

Getting to the technical presentation, the film looks... well, bad. But it's always looked bad. It's a low-budget film that had more visual effects that most films with its budget could handle, and it shows. The level of detail is better than the DVD, but not up to the level of most Blu-rays that are released today (heavy on the grain, the colors are muted, contrast isn't as strong as it could be). On the other hand, there are no coding errors or compression issues, so this is likely as good as it will get, unless the studio decides to remaster the entire movie, but that might involve invasive digital manipulation. (The dreaded Digital Noise Reduction could rear its ugly head.) The audio is better, especially on the Director's Cut, with good use of the surround sound speakers, while the dialogue is always clear.

The Verdict

Donnie Darko (10th Anniversary Edition) Blu-ray doesn't have a lot that is different from the previous Blu-ray release. Then again, a lot of people have purchased a Blu-ray player in the two-and-a-half years since the film was first released on Blu-ray, and for those it is worth picking up. It's not worth the upgrade, on the other hand.

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Filed under: Video Review, Donnie Darko