DONNIE DARKO 10th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

     August 17, 2011

When Donnie Darko arrived a decade ago, it caught a whole bunch of people off-guard.  Here was this kid– this Jake Gyllen-something– being directed by this director– Richard-something-or-other– in a truly bizarre little indie flick, one with a killer soundtrack, a few truly surprising guest stars (how long had it been since we’d seen Patrick Swayze do something that wasn’t corny?), and a plot that rewarded repeat viewings.  It was no wonder that Donnie Darko turned out to be a nearly-instant cult classic.  Now it’s ten years later, and 20th Century Fox is re-releasing the Donnie Darko Blu-ray to commemorate its tenth anniversary.  Has the film gotten better over time, worse, or has it remained just as good as it was upon release?  And, more importantly, is this 10th anniversary edition worth picking up if you’ve already purchased Richard Kelly’s best film on Blu-ray? Find out after the jump, folks….

donnie-dark-movie-image-1I still remember the first time I saw Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.  I’d heard about the film online, heard that it was a film I needed to see and that it marked the debut of what might end up being a really talented director.  I’d heard that Jake Gyllenhaal turned in a star-making performance, and that the plot was twisted, freaky, and right up my alley.  But after the film debuted at some film festival that year (I’m relatively sure it was Sundance), I’d forgotten all about it until a friend of mine showed up at my house one night bearing an armful of forties and a well-worn DVD copy of the film.  He said, “You gotta see this thing.”

Two hours or so later, I remember drunkenly calling up a handful of my friends and asking, “Have you seen this Donnie Darko movie?!”  I spent the week after my first encounter with Kelly’s film telling anyone who’d listen about it, and I rewatched it myself about half a dozen times over that amount of time.  Something about the film really appealed to me, and I found it to be endlessly rewatchable (that said, be aware that I’m the type of cat that’ll watch the same movie three times in a row if I really, really like it) and instantly quotable:  claiming that someone was being motivated “by fear” (rather than love, of course) became a commonly heard thing amongst me and my friends after we’d all seen the film.

In the past decade, Richard Kelly has failed to make a movie as good (or remotely rewatchable) as Donnie Darko, but God love the guy for trying.  I wasn’t a raving fanatic for his Southland Tales, but I’m also one of the people that’ll defend the film in a bar fight.  As for The Box, well, I’m not sure what the hell happened there (Kelly lost me early on that one, but I stuck with it to the bitter end, always sure that some bit of genius was lurking around every corner, ready to redeem all the silly bullshit that had happened before it).  Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, has gone on to become one of our hardest-working, most-beloved actors (he was damn good in this year’s Source Code).

As for Donnie Darko as a film, well, I hadn’t seen  in about two years before the Blu-ray arrived on my doorstep for review, but I was eager to give it another spin:  the last time I’d seen it, I’d watched the “Director’s Cut” of the flick, and I hadn’t been amused with the changes that Kelly had made.  As far as I was concerned, the changes Kelly made to Donnie Darko were all for the worse.  The soundtrack had been toyed with, for one thing, and that astounded me:  that opening scene– where Donnie rides his bike back home from the lonely mountain-top stretch of road where he mysteriously awakes one morning– had been perfectly cut to an Echo and The Bunnymen song (“The Killing Moon”).  Now it was INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”, a song I couldn’t help but feel didn’t fit nearly as well.

donnie-darko-movie-image-3I recall that I rejected the “Director’s Cut” almost immediately based entirely upon that switch, so when the opportunity to watch the film again after two years arose, I figured that was a good thing.  Perhaps I’d be a little older, wiser, and less likely to reject Kelly’s “Director’s Cut” than I’d been when I first saw it.  If you’d like to cut to the chase with me, I discovered that, yup, I still prefer the original version.  This is a tricky bit of criticism to level at a film, as both versions were produced by the same mind.  Who am I to say that Kelly should’ve, say, kept that Echo and The Bunnymen song rather than switching it to the INXS song?  I’m not the director, and Kelly surely had a reason for making the change.  Is it possible to love one version of a director’s film…but to feel let-down by another version?

Of course it is.  Furthermore, I think I’ve figured out what bugs me about the Donnie Darko “Director’s Cut”:  I feel like the cuts Kelly made for the “Director’s Cut” are right in line with the sort of choices he’s made as a filmmaker since releasing Donnie Darko, and that’s the problem.  Kelly was at his best when he made Darko, and everything since than has been…well, I’d be hard-pressed to call Southland Tales a “failure”, and The Box almost certainly is (an ambitious failure, to be sure, but a failure nevertheless), but both films feature a fair amount of head-scratching, WTF-was-he-thinking moments.  In Donnie Darko, the vague moments in the film are presented as mysteries, riddles that might be solved by repeat viewings of the film.  With Southland Tales and The Box, I felt that the “vague moments” were the result of sloppy filmmaking or Kelly’s inability to express abstract ideas with any kind of clarity.  The “Director’s Cut” of Kelly’s first– and best– film features equally head-scratching changes, and I learned while rewatching both versions that my opinion hasn’t changed here.

donnie-darko-movie-image-4In case you’ve somehow avoided seeing Donnie Darko over the past decade, here’s a brief recap of the plot (I’m purposely avoiding getting into a standard review’s plot-recap here for two reasons:  One, I suspect that 99.9% of you have already seen the film, and I’m just going to be wasting my time in this paragraph; and two, the pleasures of Donnie Darko‘s plot should be yours to discover, not for some jerk-off to rattle off to you like someone reading a bullet-pointed list):  Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager who’s been having trouble sleeping, not to mention some behavioral issues.  He’s one of three children in an otherwise normal family, but as his sleep continues to be disturbed– generally by visions of an oversized rabbit spitting apocalyptic advice– strange events begin to occur in his waking life.  When an airplane drops its engine right through the roof of Donnie’s house, Donnie’s “waking world” and his “dream world” begin to blend with one another, and then weird shit, and then more ominous rabbits, and then time travel, and then WTF just happened?  Really, just see the film for yourself.  No description of its plot will do it justice.

Now, I’ve spent all this time ranting and raving about my dissatisfaction with the “Director’s Cut” Kelly put together here, but it’s really inconsequential:  for one thing, you may prefer the “Director’s Cut”.  For another, both versions are included in this Blu-ray set, so you’re free to watch whichever you like.  Chances are, you already know which one you’re going to watch, so all you’re really concerned with are the extras included here:  are there enough new additions to make this set double-dip worthy?  Well, it just so happens that I have the previous Donnie Darko Blu-ray sitting right here to compare this new version with, so we can do a little side-by-side analysis.  Here’s what’s on the original, several-years-old version of the Blu-ray:

donnie-darko-movie-image-5DISC ONE:  Original and “Director’s Cut” versions of the film;  Audio commentary with Richard Kelly and Kevin Smith (this one’s totally worth listening to, by the way, but only available on the Director’s Cut);  Audio commentary with the cast and crew (original cut); Audio commentary with Gyllenhaal and Kelly (original version); and whatever this D-Box motion control nonsense is.

DISC TWO:  Production diary (with commentary by DP Steven Poster); a featurette on the “cult of Donnie Darko” called They Made Me Do It, Too; another featurette called “#1 Fan: A Darkomentary” (sigh); a featurette offering a storyboard-to-film comparison; and, finally, a trailer for the “Director’s Cut” of the film.

Now, how’s that differ from the four-disc (!!!) 10th anniversary edition?  Let’s see (let’s also only list the differences):

DISC ONE:  Exactly the same

DISC TWO:  Exactly the same

DISC THREE (DVD):  OK, here’s where things take a bit of a turn.  On this, the set’s third disc, we get the film in standard definition (original version), a commentary with Kelly and the film’s actors, deleted and extended scenes (with optional commentary), the “Cunning Visions” infomercials seen in the film, a reproduction (which is, admittedly, pretty cool to poke around in) of the Philosophy of Time Travel book seen in the film, a “Website Gallery” (?), the music video for that “Mad World” song you’ve heard too many damn times, an art gallery (including production stills), “Cast and Crew Info” (Zzzz), a theatrical trailer, and some TV spots (they cut TV spots for Donnie Darko?).

DISC FOUR (Digital Copy):  The Director’s cut of the film

donnie-dark-10th-anniversary-edition-blu-ray-coverSo, what have we learned here?  For one thing, the Blu-ray that you’ve already purchased for Donnie Darko is probably going to satiate your thirst for Darko:  unless you’re a total completist, you’re probably not going to be interested in picking up this set for all the bonus features located on the third disc (and what sense does it make to make this a big, badass Blu-ray release and then offer the special features that weren’t on the previous Blu-ray in Blu-ray format?), and the “Digital Copy” had dubious value:  almost every Blu-ray I own comes with one of these Digital Copies, and I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever done anything with them.  In fact, I was in the habit of handing them over to a friend of mine who collects such oddities until I went to my local used-DVD/Blu-ray retailer and learned that I couldn’t trade in Blu-rays if they didn’t have their Digital Copy with them (pro-tip:  stop giving away your Digital Copies, Slapdick).  Maybe you use these, maybe you don’t, but considering the fact that I don’t, this “fourth” disc was a bit of a useless addition for me.  Might be different for you, who knows?

Considering the fact that so many people purchased Donnie Darko when it first hit DVD (that’s where most of the film’s money came from, don’tchaknow), and considering the fact that anyone who really loves the film probably already double-dipped to own the film on Blu-ray when it was released on that format, I have no choice but to consider the Donnie Darko: 10th Anniversary Blu-ray a bit of a triple-dip (yeah, I said it).  With that in mind, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you buy this film a third time if you already own it on Blu-ray:  the special features are kinda neat (especially that Philosophy of Time Travel thing), but they’re also the kinda thing that you’ll look at once and then…never again.  If, however, you don’t already own Donnie Darko— on Blu-ray or DVD– then I strongly recommend that you pick up this version:  it’s the most complete, and the Blu-ray does offer both versions of the film in stunning A/V quality.

This one all comes down to how many copies of Donnie Darko you already own, folks.

My grade?  A- (for the movie), B+ (for the 4-disc set)

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