‘Donnie Darko’, in its own little way, is a masterpiece from the aboriginal writer-director Richard Kelly, which flopped at the Box Office so stupendously, it made people stretch out on the country road, with hoardings “Middlesex ahead.” Released only a few weeks post 9/11, the conspicuously cerebral sci-fi warded off it’s audience with a passenger jet-disaster scene in the movie, but made headlines with critics who symbolized the rise of sci-fi and religion through ‘Donne Darko’. Since then, it has garnered a huge cult following. But still the big question remains: What is Donnie Darko about? Well, we are here to offer that explanation.
An Unconventional Film
‘Donnie Darko’ is a film the viewing experience of which put me in a deep state of confusion and cerebral contemplation as to what conspired, yet in all its hazy confusion and mindfulness, a sci-fi nerd inside me was extremely satiated at the entire two hours and fourteen minutes spent. This is an experience that is far from perfect, even flawed in a lot of places, but it is driven by an idea so ingenious, the power of which virtually propels the entire film through its runtime, you have little choice but to submit and go along for the ride, and watch in awe as you see a rubber reality unfold like never before.
I am sure that your feelings upon having watched the film must have been synonymous with what is stated above, but let’s face it: we are lying to ourselves if we didn’t almost immediately rush to the internet to search for answers to pining questions relating to the film’s plot, simmering lest they settle down. I am guilty of doing the same years ago when I first watched it, and that beautiful state of confusion notwithstanding, I was just as bemused as the first time, which is what brings me to write this explainer. So without further ado, I attempt to decipher this amazingly bizarre film while running a parallel check inside my head. Read on.
Rather than taking the conventional approach of going through what happens in the film chronologically and then attempting to deconstruct it, I’m going to try to decipher the film by going through various chapters of the fictional book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’, that within the confines of this film’s ‘universe’ is authored by one Roberta Sparrow also nicknamed in the film as Grandma Death, later revealed to have taught science at Middlesex High School, and handed to Donnie by his current Science teacher, Kenneth Monnitoff. Luckily for us, there is a director’s cut available which is much clearer about the events in the film along with accompanying excerpts from the fictionally authored book, which I will use here and derive parallels between them and the characters/events in ‘Donnie Darko’. Let’s begin.
The Tangent Universe
The Primary Universe is fraught with great peril. War, plague, famine and natural disaster are common. Death comes to us all. The Fourth Dimension of Time is a stable construct, though it is not impenetrable. Incidents when the fabric of the Fourth Dimension becomes corrupted are incredibly rare. If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining itself for no longer than several weeks. Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.
If you’re here, it would be reasonable to assume that you have watched the film and are looking for answers. So, beginning with the most major spoiler in the film; the events that happen after the film begins, right until Donnie sits on the top of his car watching a vortex over his home engulfing the town, all occur in a ‘Tangent Universe’. It is the very fabric of what the film’s core is about, also referred to in a lot of other movies dealing with rubber reality as an alternative or parallel universe/timeline. The reason for the formation of this tangent universe is not highlighted in the film, apart from the obvious scientific explanation for the creation of any temporal anomaly, or a fractured timeline. As clearly suggested by the excerpt, the tangent universe is an unstable dimension and will collapse unto itself, forming a blackhole in the Primary Universe that may pose a threat to existence itself. This is the doomsday Frank warns Donnie about, starting 2nd October, 1988, with 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds until the tangent universe collapses creating the doomsday blackhole.
The Artifact and the Living
When a Tangent Universe occurs, those living nearest to the Vortex will find themselves at the epicentre of a dangerous new world. Artifacts provide the first sign that a Tangent Universe has occurred. If an Artifact occurs, the Living will retrieve it with great interest and curiosity. Artifacts are formed from metal, such as an Arrowhead from an ancient Mayan civilization, or a Metal Sword from Medieval Europe. Artifacts returned to the Primary Universe are often linked in religious iconography, as their appearance on Earth seems to defy logical explanation. Divine Intervention is deemed to be the only logical conclusion for the appearance of the artifact.
Surely, you do remember the Totem from Inception, whose unique properties helped the dreamer realise whether he was still dreaming or not? In a sense of understanding, that is what an artifact is. The occurrence of an artifact is the very signifier of a tangent universe, no matter how bizarre that occurrence is. In this case, the artifact is hard to miss since it literally crashes into Donnie’s bedroom minutes into the film: the plane engine that Donnie narrowly escapes when he sleepwalks in the middle of the night ‘guided’ by Frank and wakes up in the golf course in the morning. It is made of metal, and as stated by the excerpt, is retrieved by the ‘living’ with great curiosity and no one seems to have any idea where it came from, defying any logical explanation that may be pinned to its seemingly random and sudden appearance.
The interesting thing about this artifact here is that it is also seemingly an anomaly caused during the temporal fracture, or the creation of the tangent universe. The physical place of existence of the artifact, in this case, Donnie’s room and his house In general would be termed a tangent vortex. Theoretically, the tangent universe is a perfect replica of the primary universe in every physical aspect, and there should be an object that is different in the tangent universe that would be causing the instability leading to its collapse. The isolated plane engine (with no signs of an accompanying plane) coming out of nowhere is that object, the anomaly, and for things to be normal again, this artifact must be returned to the primary universe for the tangent universe to collapse without the creation of a blackhole which would otherwise consume all life. Think of THIS as the ultimate mission, as Donnie’s destiny.
Water and Metal
Water and Metal are the key elements of Time Travel. Water is the barrier element for the construction of Time Portals used as gateways between universes at the Tangent Vortex. Metal is the transitional element for the construction of Artifact Vessels.
Quite a few important terms that require an explanation here. The book by Roberta Sparrow states Water and Metal to be the two essential objects for time travel. This holds more weight along fantastical and mythic lines, rather than purely physical. Water here is termed to be both a portal and a barrier element. In the strictest sense, it just means that water will form the ‘tunnel’ for inter-universe travel, while metal will be the element that constitutes the vessel travelling through the ‘tunnel’/portal. This explanation is again corroborated by two very specific instances in the film.
Firstly, somewhere midway along the film, Donnie while in a tranced out state (when sleepwalking) tries stabbing Frank in a spot that would have been his eye, but the knife collides with a ‘liquid’ like surface and is stopped, creating ‘ripples’ on the surface. It is safe to assume that Frank (or his apparition) is caught in a time travelling scenario. This theory will, however, obtain more clarity as we establish who Frank the rabbit actually is and his role in Donnie’s ordeal. No points for guessing what the metal here is.
The second instance is when Donnie suddenly sees a circular orb of a supposedly surreal, liquid like material emerging from his (and his dad and sister’s) chest like the solar plexus, as though defining a path where that person would travel or move to next. The same is corroborated when the next day, Donnie asks Dr. Monnitoff about the nature of an object travelling through time, questioning whether time, as predestined as it is by God himself, if physically and visually accessible should render our futures foreseeable and alterable, terming that path or the previously mentioned solar plexus ‘God’s Channel’, in what is easily the best and most intense piece of conversation in the entire film, effortlessly dabbling between religion, god, and questions of existence itself and the predestined nature of time.
The Living Receiver
The Living Receiver is chosen to guide the Artifact into position for its journey back to the Primary Universe. No one knows how or why a receiver will be chosen. The Living Receiver is often blessed with Fourth Dimensional Powers. These include increased strength, telekinesis, mind control, and the ability to conjure fire and water. The Living Receiver is often tormented by terrifying dreams, visions and auditory hallucinations during his time within the Tangent Universe. Those surrounding the Living Receiver, known as the Manipulated, will fear him and try to destroy him.
Now, it wouldn’t take too much of a genius to guess that in our story, Donnie Darko is The Living Receiver charged with the responsibility of returning the artifact back to the primary universe to prevent said doomsday (the Ultimate Mission, as said before). Everybody that surrounds him and Donnie interacts with are termed the ‘Manipulated’. In the most literal sense, these people are the ones unaware of the parallel reality or tangent universe, and are being ‘manipulated’ into existing and living as if nothing were wrong.
It is almost uncertain with Donnie being the living receiver as to how or where he manifests his fourth dimensional powers, and those are the interesting bits. His ability to conjure fire is demonstrated when he sets Jim Cunningham’s house on fire. Coming to the end, when Donnie fulfils his destiny as the living receiver, he sends the plane engine back into the primary universe and prevents the blackhole from being created in the first place. He accomplishes this by conjuring up a portal of water and driving the redline engine of the plane that incidentally has his mother and sister aboard it, through the portal using his telekinesis whilst overlooking the vortex engulfing his home and town from a scenic distance, thus fulfilling his destiny as the Living Receiver.
The Manipulated Living
The Manipulated Living are often the close friends and neighbours of the Living Receiver. They are prone to irrational, bizarre, and often violent behaviour. This is the unfortunate result of their task, which is to assist the Living Receiver in returning the Artifact to the Primary Universe. The Manipulated Living will do anything to save themselves from Oblivion.
The manipulated are further of the two types, living and dead, and by extension, easily distinguishable. Donnie’s parents and sisters, his friends, teachers, psychotherapist, and every single being he directly or indirectly interacts with fall in this category. Unknowingly so, they have the onus of guiding the Living Receiver (Donnie) through his quest to send the artifact back in time in a pre-engineered sequence of events, by their actions and conversations influencing Donnie to partake a certain path a certain way. This influence, of course is very indirect and almost unnoticeable but for the larger picture, if borne in mind. A concrete example of this is when Ms. Karen, Donnie’s English teacher mysteriously hints him toward a “Cellar Door”, simply stating it as a term by a linguist that fascinated her the most or Dr. Monitoff handing Donnie the book written by Roberta Sparrow on time travel. Whether said set of events are truly pre-engineered or not is a question for another day, but for now, let’s limit ourselves to explaining the events and jargons in the film.
The Manipulated Dead
The Manipulated Dead are more powerful than the Living Receiver. If a person dies within the Tangent Universe, they are able to contact the Living Receiver through the Fourth Dimensional Construct. The Fourth Dimensional Construct is made of Water. The Manipulated Dead will manipulate the Living Receiver into using the Fourth Dimensional Construct. The Manipulated Dead will often set an Ensurance Trap for the Living Receiver to ensure that the Artifact is returned safely to the Primary Universe. If the Ensurance Trap is successful, the Living Receiver is left with no choice but to use his Fourth Dimensional Power to send the Artifact back in time into the Primary Universe before the Black Hole collapses upon itself.
The Manipulated Dead may very well be the key to the Ultimate Quest as described earlier. The one unique property that sets them apart from the manipulated living, apart from the obvious one, is their awareness of the rubber reality and therefore, from here stems their ability to modify that rubber reality allowing them to directly influence Donnie’s thoughts and actions. The most assured way to do that is an Ensurance Trap, the answer to why things happened the way they did and whether and how much of it was actually predestined to happen the way it did. The manipulated living thereafter become and operate as more or less pawns in the bigger scheme of things. In case it is not clear, Frank the rabbit and Gretchen Ross are the manipulated dead, whose actions after they ceased to live in the tangent universe could directly affect what Donnie did, and more importantly how he did it.
Frank in the film is actually the boyfriend of Donnie’s older sister, Elizabeth, who is missing from the Halloween party at the Darko’s for fetching some beer. He is incidentally also present in the car that ran over and killed Gretchen. Upon confronting Donnie, Frank is shot in the eye (the reason for Frank the rabbit having a ‘glowing’ eye) when Donnie is consumed by rage at Gretchen’s death, while Frank is wearing the same terrifying rabbit mask and costume as the Frank that haunts Donnie’s dreams. The theory here and as hinted upon earlier, is that Frank, after being killed in the tangent universe became sentient of the rubber reality and was able to manipulate it. However, his role in the tangent universe was bound to only lead Donnie or the Living Receiver to his destiny and save the primary universe from Doomsday.
He does so, by setting Ensurance traps, and therefore everything Frank the rabbit does or instructs Donnie to do: from waking him up to drive him away from the crashing plane engine in his bedroom, to asking Donnie to destroy the water main, flood the school, and vandalise school property, allowing him to meet Gretchen, to burning down Jim Cunningham’s house leading to his arrest in a child pornography ring, further leading to Kitty Farmer gunning for his defence and asking Donnie’s mother to chaperone for the dance troupe Sparkle Motion (also having Donnie’s sister Samantha, who later travel back in a plane the engine of which Donnie rips off and transports to the Primary Universe), to writing Roberta Sparrow a letter allowing him to be in the exact desired spot at the desired time for Gretchen (and himself) to be killed, leaving him with no option but to flee town and do what he must. All of them Ensurance Traps, carefully designed and making it increasingly necessary for Donnie to do the deed and fulfil his destiny as the Primary Receiver, to send the artifact back in time to the primary universe.
When the Manipulated awaken from their Journey into the Tangent Universe, they are often haunted by the experience in their dreams. Many of them will not remember. Those who do remember the journey are often overcome with profound remorse for the regretful actions buried within their dreams, the only physical evidence buried within the artifact itself; all that remains from the lost world. Ancient myth tells us of the Mayan Warrior killed by an arrowhead that had fallen from a cliff, where there was no army, no enemy to be found. We are told of the Medieval Knight mysteriously impaled by the sword he had not yet built. We are told that these things occur for a reason.
While there may not be concrete answers to the mysteries of the myths stated above, the writer-director does faintly try to answer them, atleast in theory. After Donnie sends the artifact back in time to the primary universe just short of Frank’s doomsday timer coming to a close, the tangent universe collapses without the creation of the apocalyptic black hole. The events of the past 28 days wind back up and Donnie wakes in his bedroom the night of 2 October, 1988, the day it all started. In the primary universe, that has to mirror the tangent universe for elimination of the anomaly, the plane engine that Donnie positioned in the primary universe crashes over his roof through his room, killing Donnie, who laughs just before putting himself into bed, having fulfilled his destiny and no longer afraid to die alone. The following day, the people whose lives Donnie would have otherwise affected if alive like in the tangent universe, wake up with strange visions confused at the fragments of memories that remained in their heads only to be dismissed later as mere dreams.
‘Donnie Darko’ is a film so dense with scientifically and thematically rich ideas, only undermined by the constraint of its close to 140 minute runtime. However, for that very precise reason, I see beauty in its ambiguity. There cannot possibly be a single concrete explanation of this film, leave alone one in a single viewing, and much of it especially in the theatrical cut is left for the audience to ponder upon and decipher at their will. It is this very ambiguity that keeps the film and discussions about its plot and themes alive even after seventeen year since its release, making it a cult film in every sense.
The writer-director apart from telling an infectiously engaging sci-fi tale also manages to introduce some interesting parallels here between science fiction, mythology, religion, the existence of God himself and the act of predestining time. Ideas that may seem too magnanimous in their nature to seek answers of directly, and yet still, the film abides by the philosophy: what’s the harm in asking, even if there are no definitive answers?