Updated: Apr 28, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Jake Gyllenhaal in his first major role plays Donnie Darko, a troubled high school student in therapy, prone to sleepwalking and has an imaginary friend. Mary McDonnell (“Dances with Wolves”) plays his mother Rose.
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“DONNIE DARKO: 4K LIMITED EDITION”
4K Ultra HD; 2001; not rated, violence, language, disturbing images
Best extra: “Deus ex Machina” documentary
THE HIGHLY ANTICIPATED Arrow Video “Donnie Darko” 4K box set arrived at High-Def Watch this weekend. It includes Richard Kelly’s viewer favorite Theatrical Cut and his 20-minute longer Director’s Cut. There are dozens of extras packed inside including the 100-page hardcover book by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel, and Jamie Graham, along with an interview with Richard Kelly, and an introduction by actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
You’re going to be watching and exploring this for days. Great!
What isn’t so great - for now - is Disc One. I popped it in to watch the excellent and informative 90-minute documentary “Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko,” which tells pretty much everything about Kelly’s production. The idea for “Darko” started as Kelly grew up in Richmond, Virginia, during the ‘80s. Influences include the works of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, and “The Twilight Zone” TV series.
Then I selected “Theatrical Cut” from the menu and from the get-go, noticed something wasn’t right. The imagery is jerky – shuttering – as if missing several frames per second. This is most evident as the camera pans from left to right, or moves forward during the opening sequence with Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, in his first major role) waking up in the middle of a winding mountain road.
(1&2) Donnie wakes up on a winding mountain road after a night of sleepwalking and riding his bike. (3) His mother had written on a small whiteboard attached to the fridge, “Where’s Donnie?” (4&5) Donnie and his older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) get into an argument at the dinner table.
Then I tried the disc on my second All-Region Panasonic 4K player and discovered the issue persists. Confirmation from some of our Twitter followers described the problem with Disc One had also appeared on PS5 and X-Box Series X players. Strangely, it worked fine on Sony and Pioneer players. So next came a quick run to Best Buy, where we purchased the 700 model and, presto, that also worked perfectly. There were no issues with Disc Two on any player; it features the Director's Cut and additional extras.
Clearly, there’s a coding issue with disc one on the Theatrical Cut; it’s a quality control issue that should be corrected to make sure it plays correctly on all 4K players. We reached out to Arrow’s U.S. media representative to see if U.K.-based Arrow Video had discovered the error and had a solution. Our information has been forwarded to Arrow’s home office and we’re waiting for a response.
Here’s the latest from Arrow Video:
To all our customers who have purchased our new UHD release of Donnie Darko.
We are aware that the theatrical cut of DONNIE DARKO is not operating correctly on certain players. We’re currently investigating the issue and the quickest way to resolve it. We hope to have more information soon. Thank you all who have already reached out to us and thank you for your patience.
At this point, the least expensive option for Arrow would be to work up a firmware upgrade for the players in question. The most expensive option would be to press a new disc.
Disc One: “Theatrical Cut” has playability issues with some 4K players. The bonus features on the disc play just fine.
(1&2) Donnie wakes up this time on a golf course putting green, as two golfers tell him to go home. He notices a series of numbers on his arm. (3&4) When gets home he finds the police, the fire department, and the FAA, while his parents and sisters stand away from the house. An airline engine had crashed into his bedroom overnight.
The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K at Deluxe Media in Burbank, while a 35mm digital intermediate element was scanned for some sections of the “Director’s Cut.”
The 4K restoration and HDR toning were handled at Silver Salt Restoration in London, with Arrow’s James White supervising. Kelly and director of photography Steven Poster approved the color and HDR grading, which much of the time seems way too dark – at least on my projector setup. Facial toning is realistic without any orange or red push, while the color palette remains neutral with saturated colors as appropriate.
Natural film grain is evident throughout, and overall sharpness is very good for a 4K scan and mastering, with excellent detail from close-ups to distant wide shots.
The two 4K versions carry over the same six-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack featured on the 2016 Blu-ray box set, with booming bass, clear dialogue, and excellent fidelity in Michael Andrews' haunting and beautifully atmospheric soundtrack. Plus, there are a number of ‘80s classics including INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart,” Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Oingo Boingo’s “Stay,” and the opening sequence featuring Echo & The Bunnymen singing “The Killing Moon,” ending with Gary Jules’ stripped-down cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.”
Three commentaries include Kelly and Gyllenhaal, Kelly and director Kevin Smith, and one with Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick and several of the actors.
The box set contains a wonderful 100-page hardcover book, with a forward from Gyllenhaal originally published in the 2003 “The Donnie Darko Book.”
“What is Donnie Darko” about? I have no idea, not a conscious one. But somehow I’ve always understood it. The most amazing thing about making the movie, for me, was the fact that no one – including the man from whose mind it emerged – ever had a simple answer to any question. And that, ironically, is the very thing the film is actually about. There is no single answer to any question.” — Jake Gyllenhaal, actor
The book also includes an essay by Nathan Rabin, “Donnie Darko, Adolescence and the Lost Art of Remembering and Forgetting,” who says, “Donnie Darko” is a quintessentially young film by a young filmmaker about young people that capture’s adolescence in all its feverish intensity and bewildering confusion.”
Another article from Mark Olsen, originally published September 2001 in Film Comment Magazine, focused on the then-26-year-old writer/director. He says the film is a mixture of “adolescent angst, sci-fi fantasy, sexual repression, [and] mental illness ... [It] wants to be the last word, striving to be the totalizing, all-questions-answered masterstroke teenagers awkwardly yearn for, and, like all teenagers, it also wants to remain teasingly enigmatic and undefined.”
The book also includes production photographs and a super long Q&A interview with Kelly by Kevin Conroy Scott.
Back to the documentary, Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, and editor Sam Bauer recall the difficulties of trying to get “Darko” off the ground. The consensus in Hollywood was that the script could not be produced. That’s until actor Jason Schwartzman (“Rushmore,” “The Darjeeling Limited”) said he wanted to play Donnie. He eventually changed his mind, but Drew Barrymore’s production company got involved. Money began to roll in and the cameras started rolling.
(1) Patrick Swayze as Jim Cunningham a creepy motivational speaker and lifestyle guru. (2&3) Donnie and his new girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) and their first date to see Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead.” Frank the six-foot rabbit shows up at the movies. (4) Franks suggests Donnie set a fire at the home of Jim Cunningham. Fire authorities find child pornography in the ruins and Cunningham is arrested. (5) Donnie’s younger sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase) is part of the school’s dance team. (6) English teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is fired.
Kelly says he was mystified by his own choice of “Frank,” the six-foot rabbit, who informs Donnie the world is going to end in 28 days. They also detail the limited special effects, music and the difficulties of getting “Darko” distributed, after its original Sundance premiere, among the year’s tragic events from the Columbine shootings to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The set also includes Kelly’s 1996 short student film from USC film school, “The Goodbye Place,” with deleted and extended scenes, two brief documentaries on the film’s impact, archival interviews, a production diary, an image gallery, and B-roll footage.
Kelly’s storyline unfolds around what seems to be an ordinary family of five, with teenage Donnie, the middle child and only boy … and the one in therapy, who sleepwalks and interacts with what may or may not be an imaginary giant talking rabbit continues to fascinate. It’s the extra-dark side of James Stewart’s “Harvey.” Who says pookas don't exist?
The excellent supporting cast includes Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jake’s older sister), Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Mary McDonnell, and Patrick Swayze as a creepy motivational speaker and lifestyle guru.
Mixed reviews and poor box office followed the 2001 opening. It wasn't until a year later when “Darko” became a hit in the U.K. and the DVD scored in the US that it became a cult classic.
The 4K includes Kelly’s “Director’s Cut,” with added footage, an altered soundtrack, and new chapter headings. It was released to theaters, but most consider the “Theatrical Cut” superior.
What makes the film so much fun – aside from its humor, subversive messages, and great score – is its convoluted premise and storyline, which leaves the ending open to viewer’s interpretations.
“Donnie Darko” merits repeat viewings. This 4K box set is fabulous. We just hope Arrow Video gets the Disc One issue fixed ASAP!
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer, and Peggy Earle