DVD Review: Donnie Darko on Blu-ray

The 2001 film that launched a thousand dorm-room "Whoa, dude" sessions is now out on Blu-ray. Donnie Darko, the weird and smart (yet perplexing) sleeper that put director-writer Richard Kelly at least temporarily on the filmmakers-to-watch map, is here in both versions -- the original theatrical cut and Kelly's "Director's Cut" from 2004, which adds about twenty minutes of previously deleted footage that (for better or worse) attempts to clarify the film's cosmic conundrums. The new disc format doesn't make Donnie Darko's richly realized time-twisting ambiguities any clearer, but it sure looks -- and especially sounds -- pretty terrific. Plus, getting both versions in the same package provides a welcome opportunity for comparing and contrasting them.

Donnie DarkoWatching the film again today, you can't help but note how often its cast has occupied our screen-watching conversations over the intervening years. Well before Brokeback Mountain, we have Jake Gyllenhaal starring as the sullen teenager haunted by visions of "Frank," a six-foot-tall metal-headed rabbit that warns Donnie about the imminent end of the world. Is troubled, medicated Donnie totally delusional? Or is he really the lone stitch that can keep the fabric of time and space from unraveling? Either way, that jet engine plummets from the sky and crashes through Donnie's bedroom, although no jet plane was overhead at the time. Something strange is going on.

Mary McConnell puts in strong work as Donnie's mother, and today her Laura Roslin is nearing the end of Battlestar Galactica's long run. Jake's real-life sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, natch), plays Donnie's sister Elizabeth. Also here are Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle as Donnie's sympathetic teachers, Patrick Swayze as the self-help guru with dark secrets of his own, and Jena Malone as the the girl who touches the heart beneath Donnie's odd, brainy exterior. "What the hell kind of name is that?" she asks. "It's like a superhero or something." He replies, "What makes you think I'm not?"

Whether or not Kelly's script really connects all its intriguingly crafted dots -- and trust me, multiple viewings put me no closer to a determination on that point -- Donnie Darko acquired a huge and passionate following after its DVD release in 2002. Its moody style is a grabber, Kelly's film-wonk nods to other films such as Back to the Future and E.T. help deliver its surprisingly effective resonance, and the masterful musical score by Michael Andrews -- supported by mindful use of '80s familiars such as Echo & The Bunnymen and Tears For Fears (Gary Jules' cover of "Mad World" is one of the best movie-music choices of the decade) -- provided a soundtrack for everyone who remembered what being a teenager in the '80s felt like.

And that I think is why Donnie Darko became a touchstone for so many: Kelly blended horror-film and Philip K. Dick science-fictiony elements (without ever becoming "sci fi"), John Hughes sensibilities, and some intangible style that spliced into the wires in our brains that remember what being 17 years old feels like. He tapped into an authentic-seeming vein of adolescent angst and loneliness and self-importance, and amped it up to make Donnie's painfully familiar effed-up turmoil into the stuff of literally world-saving significance. And for the sake of a sweet and understanding girl, no less. Whoa, dude.

However, the theatrical version of the film didn't wrap its story tightly, leaving us with questions that (whether by accident or design) give it an aura of something deep and ambiguously meaningful. So those questions (or else the studio's noticing a marketing opportunity after the film's cult status was secure) spurred Kelly to re-edit it into a Director's Cut that re-inserted cut material, tweaked the audio mix, and added new (annoying, distracting, sometimes ridiculous) visuals. His goal, he said, was to finally deliver the film as he originally envisioned it, and to lessen the ambiguities in its narrative.

The result is an indulgence that's different enough from the original to be worth a look, but really, it's ultimately pointless. The Director's Cut feels like a more complete whole, and we get plenty more about how Grandma Death's book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, provides the blueprint for what's happening to Donnie. But it comes at the expense of rendering Donnie Darko less open to interpretation and bull-session discussion. The Director's Cut is explicitly a science-fiction movie that reduces rather than illuminates the mysteries that made Donnie Darko intriguing in the first place.

So, while the Director's Cut is unnecessary, it's an interesting exercise nonetheless, and Kelly states in its commentary track that his intention was emphatically not to replace the original. It's simply an alternative version of the movie put out there for our consideration.

Fox's new two-disc Blu-ray edition ports over selected content from both previous DVDs. The high-def treatment doesn't boost the image quality a great deal compared to the DVDs, although the new 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master lossless audio is superb, with the music mix (arranged differently between the two versions of the film) punching through with awesome clarity. Disc One holds both versions of the film, and while you're watching one you can switch to the other via the Special Features menu.

Not all of the earlier DVDs' extras made it over to this Blu-ray. However, the best extras on board are still the three commentary tracks. For the original theatrical cut, the first commentary is a lively, enjoyable, and informative gab-fest with Kelly and Gyllenhaal. It turns out that Gyllenhaal does a first-rate Christopher Walken impression. The original cut's second commentary brings us Kelly, producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen, and actors Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Katherine Ross, Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Beth Grant, and James Duval. Both tracks provide a thorough and fun "making of" retrospective, and fans of the film should consider them must-listens.

The third commentary is for the Director's Cut. This time it's Kelly sitting down with his pal Kevin Smith for an easy-going dialogue about the production and the choices Kelly made in assembling the "extended remix" of the Director's Cut. Smith is a generous emcee, and Kelly is open and self-deprecating. (On the newly inserted, and regrettable, screen-filling eyeball that seems to be watching over Donnie's destiny, Kelly says, "While we're getting the pretension of our youth out of our system, it's time to blow it all out.")

Other extras here, housed on Disc Two, include a strong behind-the-scenes piece, Donnie Darko Production Diary (53 minutes), with optional commentary by Director of Photography Steven Poster. They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko (28 mins.) is a British production introducing us to hipper-than-thou London fans, film critics, cultural observers, and even graffiti artists who present their personal interps of what the film is "about," its influence, and its "life-changing" impact. #1 Fan: A Darkomentary (13:16), dishes up a funny spoof about an obsessive fan stalking Kelly at the San Diego Comic Con. Four scenes get an eight-minute Storyboard to Screen Comparison. The theatrical trailer is here too.

The sole new item on the Blu-ray is the enhancement for D-Box Motion Control Systems. Looks like I have to watch the film again with that new rig. Whoa. Dude.