Donnie Darko: the Echo Out of Time

“Twenty-eight days, six hours, forty-two minutes, twelve seconds. That is when the world will end.” In just ten minutes, one of the most iconic prophecies of the world’s end is delivered by one of the most iconic characters of all time. In just ten minutes, I realize just how unforgettable this film is going to be.

Donnie Darko might just be one of my favorite films of all time, and I say that for a lot of reasons. It might be because it’s a film that’s so heavily steeped in the October atmosphere, which is a big plus given that October is my favorite month of the year. It could be that it’s a film that manages to get under your skin in a way that almost defies words, not to mention that there’s something so disturbingly charming about an iconic character like Frank. Hell, maybe it’s the great on-screen chemistry between Donnie and his older sister Elizabeth, each of them played by real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal respectively.

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Or maybe, just maybe, it’s how unique and well planned the time travel elements are done. I won’t go into too much detail regarding my thoughts on time travel and what makes it such a fickle mistress for fiction right here and now, (those will come in next week’s essay as I critique one film in particular for poorly written time travel) but I’ll say for now that time travel is difficult to do. Trust me, I know.

Donnie Darko was notorious during its theatrical release for giving next to no clues whatsoever regarding, well, just about anything. It was a Rubik’s Cube of a film, and the audience was blind. Thankfully, the film was successful enough to warrant the release of a Director’s Cut on DVD. With this new cut of the film (and its DVD release), the audience is now given access to quotes from a book in the film that acts as the key to understanding everything that happens. Now that we’re armed with these quotes, let’s dive into the universe of Donnie Darko.

As always, turn back now if you don’t want the film spoiled.

The Philosophy of Time Travel

Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel is given to Donnie by his science teacher after asking him about time travel. Sparrow herself, now known by the kids as Grandma Death, was a nun and teacher at the very school that Donnie attends long before his time. Since then, she has become secluded, and can often be found seemingly trapped within her own sort of loop, constantly walking back and forth between the middle of the road and her mailbox. Nonetheless, her book is crucial to helping Donnie understand the predicament he’s in, and is a powerful aid in helping the audience understand what is going on.

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In the very first chapter, Roberta Sparrow writes:

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.

It is crucial to understand that everything that occurs in the film following the date reveal for October 2, 1988 does not take place in the same timeline as the events prior to that point. In fact, these events don’t even take place in the same universe. Once that date is revealed, we have immediately left what Roberta Sparrow refers to as the Primary Universe. Time ceases to move forward in that universe, frozen in place at the exact moment we left it. Now we find ourselves in the Tangent Universe, a universe that is exactly alike to the Primary Universe despite being completely separate. I cannot stress this fact enough, because it’s crucial to understanding how director Richard Kelly successfully avoids a logical paradox later in the film. I’ll return to this point.

Besides the fact that Roberta Sparrow’s very first chapter discusses the existence of Primary and Tangent Universes, she also provides evidence that a Tangent Universe has come into existence.

When a Tangent Universe occurs, those living nearest to the Vortex will find themselves at the epicenter 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 to religious Iconography, as their appearance on Earth seems to defy logical explanation.

Shortly after Donnie is lead away from his bed by Frank (who promptly delivers his prophecy of the end of the world), a jet engine crashes through the roof of Donnie’s bedroom. No one seems to know where this jet engine came from, and worse yet, no one seems to know what happened to the plane it was attached to. Government agents retrieve the jet engine and reimburse the family for damages as they conduct their investigation, but they never come to a conclusion. This jet engine is the artifact that Roberta Sparrow writes about; not only is it a large metal object like Sparrow describes, but much like an arrowhead or a metal sword, it surely would have killed Donnie were he not lead away by Frank.

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Why was Donnie lead away by Frank? Donnie is what Roberta Sparrow refers to as the Living Receiver, an individual selected for unknown reason to right the wrongs that have happened and send the Artifact back into the Primary Universe, thus fixing whatever rupture has occurred to create the Tangent Universe in the first place.

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.

In addition to the artifact, we know that a Tangent Universe has been created due to the very existence of Frank as he appears throughout the film. The first real time that Donnie meets Frank is just after Frank has run over Donnie’s love interest Gretchen, shortly after which Donnie shoots Frank in the eye, killing him immediately. Because he has died within the Tangent Universe, Frank becomes what is known as a Manipulated Dead.

The Manipulated Dead are more powerful than the Living Receiver. If a person dies within the Tangent Dimension, 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 using the Fourth Dimensional Construct (see Appendix A and B).

The version of Frank that haunts Donnie through most of the film is Frank communicating with Donnie from the future. Because of his status as a Manipulated Dead, Frank is able to manipulate Donnie onto the path that not only ends with Donnie doing what he is meant to do as the Living Receiver but also ends with Donnie killing Frank, thus allowing him to travel back in time and manipulate Donnie at all.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Frank is the primary force responsible for many of the supernatural elements present in the film. Twice during the film, Donnie displays his supernatural powers as the Living Receiver (increased strength when breaking a water main and embedding an ax in a solid bronze statue, and conjuring fire when burning down the home of Jim Cunningham) while under the influence of Frank. We also see Frank manipulate Donnie through the Fourth Dimensional Construct, often giving him visions of tubes of water shooting forth from a person’s torso in the path they are destined to travel.

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However, this begs the question: why bother having Donnie flood the school or burn down Cunningham’s house? The school’s sudden flooding is what leads to Donnie and Gretchen speaking for the first time, helping to set Gretchen into the position as Donnie’s love interest. Cunningham’s house burning to the ground allows the authorities to find his collection of child pornography, and because the ever-so-dedicated Kitty Farmer can’t bring herself to accept that her idol is a pedophile, she pleads with Donnie’s mother to chaperone their girls for their trip to Los Angeles. This simultaneously leaves the house empty for a Halloween party to be thrown by Donnie and Elizabeth, while also ensuring that a plane will be flying overhead on the morning of October 30 as Rose and Samantha Darko return from their trip.

Just as crucial to ensuring that Donnie does as he is meant to do is Gretchen, who we mustn’t forget is also a Manipulated Dead as she herself also dies on the night of October 30. Unlike Frank who manipulates Donnie through terrifying visions, Gretchen is immediately set into place as Donnie’s love interest and may manipulate him on an emotional level. All of this, of course, is for the sake of leading Donnie on the path towards what Roberta Sparrow calls the Ensurance Trap.

The Manipulated Dead will set an Ensurance Trap.

The Living Receiver must ensure the fate of all mankind.

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.

Gretchen’s death outside of Roberta Sparrow’s house on the night of October 30 is the Ensurance Trap, guaranteeing that Donnie will do as he is meant to and save the world as he has nothing else to stop him while also solidifying Frank and Gretchen’s status as Manipulated Dead so that they may lead Donnie to this point in the first place.

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In addition to the Manipulated Dead, we are informed that the remainder of those around the Living Receiver are known as the Manipulated Living.

The Manipulated Living are often the close friends and neighbors of the Living Receiver. They are prone to irrational, bizarre, and often violent behavior.

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.

Despite lacking the powers of the Manipulated Dead, the Manipulated Living are just as crucial to ensuring that the Living Receiver accepts his responsibility and carries out his task. When Gretchen first enters Donnie’s English class, it’s the teacher Karen Pomeroy that seats her next to Donnie. When Donnie asks his science teacher Dr. Kenneth Monnitoff about time travel, he’s immediately provided with Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel which contains all the answers he needs to understand what’s happening to him. When Ms. Pomeroy can no longer allow her students to read “The Destructors” by Graham Greene, she instead has them read Watership Down by Richard Adams, which results in a conversation in which Donnie must come to terms with his fate. Most important of all, when Donnie and Gretchen visit Roberta Sparrow’s home on the night of October 30, the school bullies Seth and Ricky are present to lead them back outside, putting Gretchen next to the road and keeping Donnie from saving her as Frank, driving back from a beer run, swerves out of the way to avoid hitting Roberta Sparrow in the middle of the road, thus running over and killing Gretchen.

But this begs the question: why is an Ensurance Trap even necessary? What is preventing Donnie from willingly fulfilling his duty as the Living Receiver if not his fear of losing what he’s gained with Gretchen? Once again, The Philosophy of Time Travel provides us with the answer:

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.

 

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.

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 a sword he had not yet built.

We are told that these things occur for a reason.

Donnie has already had the chance to read the entirety of Sparrow’s book, and he knows what fulfilling his duty means for him, for as we can see, the very same artifacts Sparrow described before are later referenced as killing individuals when they appear. We know that these artifacts must be sent from a point in the future when a knight is killed by a sword “he had not yet built,” similar to a jet engine from a plane that had not yet flown overhead. Donnie isn’t afraid of losing what he’s gained with Gretchen. He’s afraid of dying, and he knows that his death in the Primary Universe is necessary to fix the rupture that will destroy everything because he himself sends back the jet engine that will kill him. There won’t be a future for him. There won’t be a Frank to lead him out of bed because Frank won’t exist as a Manipulated Dead in that universe.

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What’s more, as we discover during his discussion with his therapist, he’s afraid of dying alone. Because as Roberta Sparrow herself whispers in his ear, “Every living creature on this earth dies alone.” The Ensurance Trap resulting in Gretchen’s death means Donnie has nothing else to hold on to, and as a result he is forced to come to terms with his inevitable death and fulfill his duty as the Living Receiver.

With all of this finally understood, we have one final problem to solve: the paradoxes.

Solving Donnie Darko

The first paradox we’ll look at is: if Donnie inevitably dies at the end of the film, how then can he possibly send the jet engine back in time in the future? This is why I stressed the most important fact at the very beginning that two separate universes exist in the film. At the exact moment of the rupture, a Tangent Universe is created that we seamlessly switch to. All of time has frozen and ceases to flow in the Primary Universe while events continue on in the Tangent Universe. When Donnie sends the jet engine back in time, that jet engine lands in the Primary Universe and immediately kills him, thus fixing the rupture and destroying the Tangent Universe. There is no paradox present because the jet engine was sent from the future of a completely separate reality altogether. Donnie’s death in the Primary Universe is completely irrelevant to the events of the Tangent Universe.

Next: if Donnie’s death is all that is necessary to fix the rupture, then why does Frank lead him away from his bed just prior to the jet engine’s fall? Again, we are discussing two completely separate universes altogether. Donnie’s death in the Primary Universe is necessary to fix the rupture in the fourth dimension, but his death will never happen if his future self in the Tangent Universe never sends the jet engine back in the first place. If Frank allows Donnie to die in the Tangent Universe when the jet engine falls, he will never be able to send the jet engine back in time into the Primary Universe, and thus all of creation will be destroyed.

Finally, the biggest paradox of them all: if Donnie sends the jet engine back in time to the Primary Universe, then why does the jet engine appear in the Tangent Universe? After all, the jet engine that Donnie sends back in time originates in the Tangent Universe. If that jet engine is being thrown out of it and into a completely different universe altogether, why does it also appear in the universe that almost the entirety of the film takes place in? If throwing the jet engine into the Primary Universe results in the rupture being fixed and the Tangent Universe collapsing, then how can the jet engine appear in the Tangent Universe?

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In a typical story involving a time loop, a character may receive a mystery item from the future. During the story, the character may find it necessary to use this item to save their life. Realizing the significance of this item, they may then send this item back in time to their younger self, who will receive it, thus continuing the loop infinitely.

Understand that the jet engine appearing at all in the Tangent Universe is critical for Donnie to complete his task. Were the jet engine never to appear in the Tangent Universe, he would arrive at the end of the film with no idea what the Artifact is supposed to be. Given that it’s necessary for Donnie to send the Artifact into the Primary Universe to fix the rupture in the fourth dimension, it’s necessary that Donnie be aware of what the Artifact actually is.

This still leaves the question of how the jet engine appears in the Tangent Universe. Forty two minutes into the film, while Kitty Farmer is busy complaining about “The Destructors” being taught to the students of the school, we see Donnie enter his bathroom to take his medicine when Frank appears. Donnie turns to face him and reaches out to touch him, but he finds that an invisible barrier of some kind prevents him from doing so. While pressing his right hand against the barrier, Frank in turns pushes his left hand against the barrier as well. This image makes Frank appear to be acting as a reflection of Donnie. Fittingly enough, this barrier appears to ripple when touched much like water; not only have we already established that the Fourth Dimensional Construct through which Frank contacts and manipulates Donnie is made of water, but water also provides a reflective surface.

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This is the key to understanding the relationship between the Tangent Universe and the Primary Universe. The Tangent Universe is a direct reflection of the Primary Universe. All of the events that have occurred in the Primary Universe prior to the rupture in the fourth dimension must also have happened in the Tangent Universe. Whatever happens in the Primary Universe must also be reflected in the Tangent Universe. Therefore, when Donnie sends the jet engine back in time into the Primary Universe, thereby causing it to fall through his bedroom, the Tangent Universe reflects this.

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Future Frank in the Tangent Universe has already been killed, and Future Donnie sends the jet engine back in time to the Primary Universe. Because the Tangent Universe is a reflection of the Primary Universe, the jet engine will inevitably appear in the Tangent Universe as well. Knowing this, Frank travels back in time to lure Donnie away from his room in the Tangent Universe so that he will survive the jet engine’s appearance and recognize it later as the Artifact.

Future Donnie sends a jet engine back in time into the Primary Universe, crashing it through his bedroom and killing himself in the Primary Universe. Meanwhile, the jet engine’s appearance must inevitably be reflected in the Tangent Universe, so Frank as a Manipulated Dead travels back in time and lures Donnie away from his bed mere minutes before the jet engine appears, thus ensuring that Donnie will know what the Artifact is and will go on to eventually send it into the Primary Universe. And because sending the jet engine into the Primary Universe kills Donnie and collapses the Tangent Universe, this loop of jet engines appearing and disappearing only occurs once as opposed to being an infinite time loop.

Not only did Richard Kelly prevent a time paradox in his film by creating a perfect loop, but he also succeeds in creating a time loop that only occurs once and then never again. The rupture is fixed and the Tangent Universe collapses with no major repercussions outside of Donnie’s death, which itself is exactly the point of the film.

The Philosophy of Time Travel

We left the Primary Universe and entered the Tangent Universe minutes before the jet engine arrived in either one. This means that when Donnie returns to the Primary Universe, he does so minutes before the jet engine’s arrival. He isn’t blind to what’s going to happen. As Roberta Sparrow writes in her book:

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.

Donnie woke up prior to the engine’s fall in the Tangent Universe because Frank came back in time to lure him away. When Donnie wakes up in the Primary Universe, he has just experienced the events that occurred in the Tangent Universe as if they were a dream. Donnie knows what’s going to happen. He knows that in a matter of minutes, a jet engine will crash through the roof of his bedroom and kill him immediately. He has every chance to get up and run, to avoid being killed by the jet engine, and to allow all of existence to come to an end.

This is precisely the problem posed earlier in the film during a discussion between Donnie and his science teacher, Dr. Monnitoff. Donnie is discussing the fourth dimensional constructs that he has seen extend forward from the torsos of himself and those around him, perfectly predicting their future movements. He argues that such an ability would effectively be a form of time travel, given that an individual could see their destined futures manifest themselves visually — they could effectively see into the future. Dr. Monnitoff argues otherwise, saying that such an ability would be a direct contradiction upon itself; if a person could see their destined future, they would have the choice to betray that destiny and choose an alternative path, thus destroying any existing concept of destiny. Donnie retorts that your choice to betray that path doesn’t actually exist, that so long as you exist in a space and time controlled by God, you have no choice but to adhere to your destiny, even if you could see that destiny laid out before you.

This is why Roberta Sparrow gave her book the precise title it possesses. As Elizabeth herself asks at one point, “What does philosophy have to do with time travel?” Roberta Sparrow postulates that time travel is not essentially a scientific or mechanical endeavor as we have seen in so much modern day fiction involving the subject. Instead, much like the oldest time travel stories, her book argues that it is essentially a supernatural matter in the direct domain of God. She herself writes:

Artifacts returned to the Primary Universe are often linked to religious Iconography, as their appearance on Earth seems to defy logical explanation.

Divine intervention is deemed the only logical conclusion for the appearance of the Artifact.

Time travel as it exists in Donnie Darko is not a matter of science and mathematics, but is principally a matter of theology and philosophy.

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This is also why Donnie doesn’t leave the bed. He has seen the future, he is aware of his impending death, he knows that he has mere minutes to escape his fate, and yet he doesn’t. He chooses to laugh himself to sleep. Donnie has come to terms with his feelings and accepted his death because he knows he doesn’t have a choice, despite being fully aware of his destiny. Like the Mayan warrior and Medieval knight before him, he will die by his own hands, and he will allow it to happen because as Roberta Sparrow wrote:

We are told that these things occur for a reason.

What of those Manipulated people around him? In the final moments of the film, we see a number of individuals woken in the middle of the night, their dreams haunted by visions of their actions in the Tangent Universe. Meanwhile, a cover of Tears for Fears’ song “Mad World” by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules plays; despite Tears for Fears already having a song on the Donnie Darko soundtrack in its original form, a cover was used for these final moments, a cover which — like the Primary Universe in relation to the Tangent Universe — is primarily the same but essentially different.

The real tragedy at the end of the film isn’t that Donnie had to die so the world he never liked might be saved. The real tragedy at the end of the film is the viewer’s realization that the only reason a romance ever developed between Donnie and Gretchen was because of her status as one of the Manipulated, who as Roberta Sparrow wrote “will do anything to save themselves from Oblivion,” including setting Donnie up for an Ensurance Trap. Had the events of the film never happened, it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty whether or not a romance would have ever formed between the two.

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And the jet engine, the only physical evidence that the Tangent Universe ever existed? It will only go on as a complete and total mystery to the Living who receive it, a faint glimpse into a world that was, an artifact out of space, an echo out of time.


All images taken from Donnie Darko: Director’s Cut are the property of Flower Films. They are used for non-profit purposes in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine.

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