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Donny Darko, 1984 film revivals are appropriate for these Trumpian times: Howell


Funny thing about doom ’n’ gloom cinema: critics and regular moviegoers alike often sniff at fresh depictions of terrible things to come.

Time and politicslike the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency — can make even the bleakest of prophetic visions suddenly seem spot on.

Fritz Lang’s urban dystopia Metropolis, set in 2026, was panned, shunned and slashed when it was released 90 years ago this year.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, set in a drenched L.A. of 2019, got thumbs down from Siskel & Ebert and yawns from popcorn munchers in 1982.

Both films are now hailed as masterpieces — they’re referenced in this week’s big opener, Ghost in the Shell — and sci-fi fans eagerly await Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, a sequel due in October.

A similar reconsideration is now also happening with Michael Radford’s 1984, a screen adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel of totalitarian untruths that resonates with these Trumpian times.

Considered a dud upon its initial release in late ’84 — Toronto didn’t see it until early 1985 — the film gets a continentwide screening April 4, to commemorate the start date of the story’s anti-Big Brother protest by rebel worker Winston Smith, played by John Hurt, who died last month.

Toronto’s The Royal on College St. will be among 180 North American art houses participating in this act of artistic uprising, celebrating freedom of speech and protesting Trump’s anti-art administration.

The Royal is also the place to be for another revival: a new print of and renewed appreciation for Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, one of the most overlooked of films in the dystopian and apocalyptic cinema canon.

Expect to see it there in mid-May — the film is also getting a new VOD and Blu-ray rollout on April 18 — wherein you can stare at Kelly’s still-disturbing view of 1988 America. The movie, which premiered at Sundance in January 2001, anticipated the horrors of 9/11 just a few months later.

The family home of Jake Gyllenhaal’s title character is struck by a fallen jet engine, part of the impending global devastation predicted by a giant rabbit named Frank, who is either Donnie’s delusion or the weirdest of doomsayers. A book titled The Philosophy of Time Travel becomes significant to a movie that operates on more than one level of existence.

Here is a film that truly deserves a revival, especially since it never really got a first chance to make its mark. Donnie Darko barely made it off the launch pad in 2001 because its parallels to 9/11 — entirely accidental — seemed all too real. The movie was released that year in only a handful of theatres, no Toronto ones among them.

Writer/director Kelly, 41, recalls the situation all too well when I contact him for an interview. Donnie Darko was his first feature.

“No one knew how to market Donnie Darko, because it was this unique blend of suburban comedy/drama/horror/science fiction,” the Virginia filmmaker says.

“And no one knew what category to put the movie in. They would gravitate toward horror, I guess, because they just didn’t know what else to do with it, and they knew that they had the rabbit image, which was startling and disturbing … I think people just needed to figure out over time what it was.”

Kelly doesn’t feel any more inclined today than he did in 2001 to explain what Donnie Darko is about. Multiple interpretations are available online, and he’s OK with that.

“I try to let people have their own interpretations, and I encourage people to think freely and to have their theories. I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s theory, because I don’t want to suppress anyone’s opinion or idea. It’s part of why I want to create these really intricate stories — they can be revisited and interpreted in lots of different ways.”

Viewing the film again recently, I was struck by the television images in it of George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, candidates in the 1988 U.S. presidential election. Bush and Dukakis both look so presidential, unlike the current White House occupant.

Kelly agrees: “It’s remarkable to think how our political process has just deteriorated into this grotesque reality television spectacle. It’s troubling and it’s sad.”

The age of Trump, with its attendant “fake news” and anti-intellectual animus, has made Kelly all the more convinced that artists have an important role in society.

“I feel a responsibility to really create as much resistance art as possible, given our current political reality, and to not be afraid of making some kind of political statement with my art.

“It’s always been a part of my work to be political, I think. I’m going to continue to try and do that, and I think I feel more emboldened to try and do that, given who our president is now.”

He hasn’t directed a feature since the sci-fi thriller The Box in 2009 but he’s “so ready to get back behind the camera” with a project he says he can’t yet discuss — although he has been musing lately about eventually making a proper Donnie Darko sequel.

In the meantime, he’s hoping people will rediscover Donnie Darko. If there is one take-home message from the film, he wants it to be about creativity.

“I hope that this film can inspire people to take risks and to be original, and not to feel like you have to box yourself in to a genre or classification … You can just be who you want to be, and tell a story without restriction and without suppression. We need to take risks now. We have a reality television monster in the White House.”

One that is scarier than an apocalypse-predicting giant rabbit.

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic. His column usually runs Fridays.

TORONTO STAR | ENTERTAINMENT