“Why do you wear that stupid man-suit?” Frank deflects to Donnie from the strange calm of the empty movie theatre.
Taken at that moment within the context of the film the line initially appears to carry little weight. Alternatively it could even read as a throwaway gag from something as haphazard as Happy Days. But taken after the fact, or mused over retrospectively, one could stretch to ascertain that its purpose within the film is far more significant. It beckons us to look closely within ourselves and contemplate what and, more importantly, who we are. For some, ruminated on too intently, it may trigger passing bouts of self-loathing. Others, however, will extrapolate strength, wishing to gaze back on their history for means to develop stern appreciation or, at the least, reason.
If you’re much like me chances are any detailed introspective memory pre-dating the past 6 months is fleeting. Of course any event more traumatising is always harder to shake. These are the instances that generate unnerving or moving states that, prior to happening, we either hadn’t comprehended or simply weren’t aware existed. They leave marks, and in no other period than our late formative teen years were we more vulnerable to the damage.
I fumble over the subject of reflection as it coincides with news that Arrow Films, to mark the 15th anniversary of the film, will be premiering a 4K renovated edit of the directors’ cut of Donnie Darko at the BFI this month. And while many may be rightly sceptical on how this will affect the authenticity and vision of the original work, we should at least bask in the opportunity to re-evaluate both its impact and legacy nonetheless.
It should come as no surprise really that the film is receiving said anniversary treatment, particularly when digesting the somewhat unconventional journey it has endured to date. Suppressed initially by tepid box office sales as a result of theatre’s rejecting the reel on account of the plot drawing minuscule – literally minuscule – resemblance to the 9/11 tragedy, Donnie Darko has since encountered many phases of cultural status, from underground phenomenon, to worldwide cult hit, to #53 on Empire’s 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time. It makes a story worth commemorating, and its ability to tap into the deepest sympathies of teenagers and young adults of continued generations goes lengths to explain its ever-renewing success.
The film’s prime calling card was that it identified that these emotions plaguing us were universal. To prove so it utilised a compelling – and frankly mind-boggling – story to annotate this understanding in a way instantly obvious to those who watched it. Writer and director, Richard Kelly, recognised that the teenager was an anxious and troubled race and that what we desperately sought was something that, even in our darkest moments, we could relate to. Confronting everything from love interests and intimidating classmates, to conformity and self-alienation, Kelly’s Darko represented the inner structure – that same “inability to cope with the forces in the world [perceived] to be threatening” – within every one of us. On top of that its plot, which follows the protagonist as he seeks to decipher the strange visions tormenting him for means to prevent the end of the world, provided, via sci-fi underwriting, an escapism commonly attributed for the same audience.
And then there was the cinematic pay-off. Taking on evident influence from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Kelly constructed a world for his film that, as well as placing younger characters in more prominent roles, was conceived and stationed in simple, small-town American suburbia. It’s a palpable connection after all; Kelly being only 25 when making the film would himself have been a direct benefactor of cuts such as E.T and Raiders of the Lost Ark, given they saw release during his own childhood years.On a side note, however, what’s more interesting is the winning formula this nostalgia-led picture-making continues to conjure. Even today breakthroughs are being made from the same ideas, albeit reformatted ever so lightly to serve their own distinguishable purposes. Most obvious, of course, was this years’ Stranger Things, which featured a strikingly familiar scene during its mid-point consisting of a small pack of youngsters hurtling through autumn fields on bicycles, aghast at what ever menacing threat troubled them. Accounting that it worked in 1982, then again with Donnie Darko 19 years later as well as once more this decade (and these are only prime examples), if it confirms anything it’s our ubiquitous favourability for adventure in cinema. It reminds us all too fondly of our own experiences growing up; of being terrifically industrious and immensely imaginative, sometimes to a point where blurring the lines between reality and fiction was a welcome retreat from the noise of the existing world.
To implement that very sense of obscurity Kelly also borrowed from the work of modern surrealist’s akin to the likes of David Lynch, particularly for dramatising Donnie’s terrors. What this achieved within the film was a tangible, and in many ways shockingly realistic, representation of the wildly intensified universe its audience perceives to inhabit. From an entirely different outlook, however, consequently a lack of clarity at points has also culminated in debate on the finer points of the film’s plot. Entering the words ‘Donnie Darko explanation’ on the Internet, for example, yields hundreds upon hundreds of search engine results. Artistically it improved the film tenfold, yet certain overzealous diehards continue to rack their brains tirelessly, even still, over what exactly it all means.
So whether this month’s renovation is justifiable or not, it doesn’t matter. For better and for worse, the damage is already done.
Donnie Darko 15th Anniversary 4K Restoration will screen at the BFI from 17th December and in cinemas nationwide from 23rd December