In 2001, a cult classic emerged completely out of nowhere after dying a quiet death during a miniscule theatrical run before finding new life in the mainstream filmgoing public: Donnie Darko. The story of a troubled high school teenager plagued by apocalyptic if not insane prophetic visions of the end of times foretold by a demonic giant bunny rabbit, first time writer-director Richard Kelly’s hybrid of David Lynch, John Hughes, Tears for Fears and Philip K. Dick captured the imagination of cinephiles before expanding into a bona fide cultural phenomenon beyond anything it’s creators expected.
Richard Kelly went from being a newcomer to a formidable auteur with a head on his shoulders and a unique cinematic vision which took what we knew from the past twenty years of coming-of-age high school comedies and surreal science fiction. In no time, the young auteur was on top of the filmmaking world. And then something terribly disappointing happened thereafter: Richard Kelly directed two more feature films which all but killed his film career, Southland Tales and The Box. Eviscerated by critics and flopping at the box office, Richard Kelly very quickly went from being a wunderkind to a much maligned sophomore who tried to play in the big league before fumbling the ball. Soon after, critics and filmgoers began to reevaluate whether or not Donnie Darko was the work of a master or merely a fluke.
Thankfully however, some fifteen years since the initial release and in spite of the unfavorable reputations of his subsequent features, Donnie Darko as it turned out is still beloved among moviegoers. With the rise of nostalgic retro 80s cinema and television hits like Stranger Things, Donnie Darko was then reappraised not just as one of the first true cult classics of our generation but among the very first to tap into what is now a trendy celebration of the 1980s film scene. Better still, cult film distributor Arrow Video teamed up with Richard Kelly to oversee a brand new 4K restoration of his celebrated science fiction classic before prompting a theatrical re-release in the UK. Not long after, Arrow Video’s 4K remaster of Donnie Darko would eventually make it’s stateside debut followed by a full blown theatrical re-release of the new digital transfer.
We at The Movie Sleuth have never been shy about our love for Donnie Darko. Both of this review's co-writers have previously written pieces on the film, with Andrew reviewing it for our Director 101: Richard Kelly article, and Chris discussing its excellent use of music in our Ten of the Best Movie Soundtracks piece. Now, let’s take a look at this new and improved home video release of Donnie Darko.
Cited by Arrow Films as an exclusive 4K restoration, the original 35mm negatives for Donnie Darko were scanned on a pin-registered 4K Lasergraphics Director scanner at Deluxe Media, Burbank under the supervision of director Richard Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster. Serving as the basis for the theatrical and director’s cut versions save for a 35mm digital intermediate element for certain sections in the director’s cut, Donnie Darko is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Further restoration work and cleanup was done at Deluxe Restoration, London before additional color grading was completed at Deluxe, Culver City. Lastly, one final visual effects shot exclusive to the director’s cut was fully re-rendered by Richard Kelly’s visual effects team for this Arrow Video release.
Originally shot in anamorphic Panavision 35mm, Donnie Darko in theaters, DVD and the eventual Fox Video blu ray all bore the distinction of looking blurrier than your average film. Much of this is based on the low light levels and eccentric use of focus and blue tinting, making the film look beautiful but decidedly muted when compared to other pictures available at the time. Having seen it firsthand in 35mm, I can say without hesitation the 4K restoration looks stronger than it did when it first came out. For the first time, Donnie Darko exhibits heavy film grain and a startling amount of detail never visible to the naked eye before.
In some instances the budgetary limitations of the photoshopped CGI visual effects are all the more apparent in the 4K transfer, as the grand vista of a portal forming in the clouds looks a bit like a still photo with some minor manipulations. That said, the 35mm footage looks fantastic and truly filmic. For those who own the Fox Video blu ray, my friendly suggestion is to go for the upgrade as in all honesty I felt I was seeing Donnie Darko for the very first time.
The original audio stems for the 2.0 Dolby Surround and 5.1 Dolby Surround sound mixes for this home video release of Donnie Darko were supplied to Arrow Video by Lakeshore Entertainment with DTS-HD 5.1 encoding. While no real work was needed on either the theatrical cut sound mix or the director’s cut sound mix, fans used to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on the DVD will be delighted by the increased clarity, depth and range of the new DTS-HD 5.1 rendering. As with the original release, the theatrical cut is the weaker sounding of the two despite containing the original soundtrack listing and sound effects mix. The director’s cut remixed much of the soundtrack to give greater spatial depth to the soundscape though as aforementioned many sound effects were re-recorded and music cues were replaced altogether or removed completely. Depending on your preference, both mixes sound fantastic in DTS-HD 5.1 and are a vast improvement over the muted Dolby 5.1 audio on the DVD release. Fans should most definitely be pleased!
Arrow Video has pulled out (nearly) all the stops with this special edition, giving us an array of extras that easily matches the quality of the upgraded picture and sound, and makes this a pretty definitive release. While the previous DVD and blu-ray releases of Donnie Darko may have been lackluster in the technical departments, they all boasted some impressive special features, so Arrow really had to bring their A-game in order to make the extras on this special edition rise to the occasion. To begin with, they have ported over all of the extras from the Fox Video releases of both the theatrical and director’s cuts: three audio commentaries (two on the theatrical cut, with Richard Kelly and various combinations of the cast and crew, and one on the director's cut with Kelly and somewhat random guest-commentator Kevin Smith), four vintage documentary featurettes, archival interviews with most of the cast and crew, a bunch of deleted scenes, the full Cunning Visions infomercials made for the film, the Mad World music video, and the usual assortment of trailers. New to this release are Kelly's 1996 short film The Goodbye Place, which shows early signs of some of the ideas he would eventually develop into Donnie Darko, as well as a look at how the film's exhaustive storyboards made it to the screen. The limited edition set also comes with a very nice hardcover book, containing several essays and interviews about the film. And then there's the one very big, very cool new extra that really sets this set apart, just as much as the 4k remaster itself.
For this special edition, Arrow Video has teamed up with Ballyhoo Motion Pictures for a feature-length (85 minute) documentary about the production and legacy of the film, titled Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko. Featuring extensive interviews with most of the principal crew (Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer and more), this new doc is excellent, and offers very in-depth insights into how the film came to be. Divided into chapters covering the film's inception, pre-production, shooting, editing, troubled initial release, and rise to cult-classic status, Deus ex Machina offers the more or less definitive history of Donnie Darko, and it is fascinating. Most of the figures involved – especially the intense Kelly and the highly-detailed Poster – are great storytellers, and they paint a compelling portrait of just how unlikely this film is, and what a hard-fought journey to the screen it had.
It tells the story of Kelly as an ambitious 24-year-old film-school grad who somehow manages to launch his first feature script into the stratosphere of indie-film culture in a way that seemed somewhere between unlikely and impossible, thanks in large part to the support, enthusiasm, and confidence of mentoring figures like Poster and executive producer/co-star Drew Barrymore. As youthful enthusiasm and artistic vision meet the insane obstacles of finishing and releasing a film as bizarre and high-concept as Donnie Darko, it becomes very clear what a passion-project this was for all involved; not just Kelly, but seasoned pros like Poster, who clearly poured his soul into the film's visuals. The journey the documentary takes us on is not only fascinating for fans of the film, but inspiring and quite educational for filmmakers and artists. Not only did I finish Deus ex Machina feeling quite motivated to pursue my own art – if Kelly could make this film happen at five years younger than I am now, then surely I can put myself out there and find some success too – I actually learned some very good tips about lighting design and cinematography techniques from Poster's thorough details about how he lit and shot the film. If you work in the film/television/video production industry, this is a must-watch, as it is one of the more technically informative making-of docs that I have encountered.
The doc also answers questions that a lot of fans have had about just how the highly-divisive director's cut came about, and what Kelly thinks about it in hindsight. While our spoiler-free ethos extends to discussion of special features, I can safely say at least that he certainly does not present the director's cut as the definitive version, but instead frames the two edits as parallel companion cuts of the film, both of which serve a valuable purpose. As such, it makes a lot of sense that both cuts are treated so lovingly in this set.
The one complaint that I have about the doc, and the special features on this Arrow set in general, is that it conspicuously lacks any present-day interviews with the film's major stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Drew Barrymore. Deus ex Machina does feature a pretty in-depth interview with James Duval, who plays Frank the Bunny, and his retrospective thoughts on the film and its importance are very interesting. But still, it would have been great to hear Gyllenhaal look back at the film that more or less launched his career, or hear Barrymore talk about her very personal involvement with the film as an executive producer and one of its champions. The whole cast is very involved in all the archival special features ported over from the DVD, though, so this certainly isn't a dealbreaker; just a bit of a lost opportunity. This one complaint aside, though, the extras on Arrow's special edition are spectacular, and pretty definitive. The documentary alone makes this box set worth picking up, and the hardcover book just further seals the deal.
With an excellent 4k remaster and an exhaustive set of extras topped off with a feature-length documentary that easily could have been released as a standalone film, Arrow Video's Donnie Darko limited edition is an obvious must-buy. The film has never looked or sounded better, and the special features provide just about everything that a fan could want to know, plus some very welcome education and inspiration for the filmmakers and artists out there. While the film faced some backlash after Southland Tales and The Box cast an unfortunate shadow over Richard Kelly's career, this special edition makes a strong case that Donnie Darko is just as great, and just as important, as we thought it was to begin with. The documentary also shows Kelly to be an intelligent artist with some very real vision beyond this one film, and it makes me hope that he will be able to overcome the career-stopping effects of his follow-up features, and stage a comeback that finally lives up to the greatness of his debut.
If you're a fan of the film, Arrow's Donnie Darko box set is essential, and totally worth a double-dip from the previous editions. And if you're new to the film, this is the best possible way to see it for the first time. Highly recommended.
- Andrew Kotwicki (Introduction, Video, Audio)
- Christopher S. Jordan (Extras, Conclusion)
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