“28 days … six hours … 42 minutes … 12 seconds. That is when the world will end.”
This cryptic message first spoken by Frank the Rabbit in Richard Kelly’s cult masterpiece “Donnie Darko” has for many fans become the movie’s tagline. Released in 2001 and marketed as just another teen-slasher flick, the movie floundered in theatres but received an explosive and intensely rabid following once it came to DVD. To this day, fans still puzzle over the movie’s plotline and its general philosophy.
To the despair of many, a sequel by the name of “S. Darko” was released last year – without Kelly as its director – and there are now rumors floating around that a third “Darko” movie is in the works, this time with Kelly on-board. While some people enjoyed the sequel, it encountered wide resistance and wishes to forget it ever happened; “Darko” is just one of those movies that simply can’t work as a sequel. Imagine “Pulp Fiction 2” or “Requiem for a Dream: The Crystal Meth Chronicles.” God help us.
With rumors that Kelly is cooking up a third “Darko” movie, people are beginning to worry this unwelcome barrage of whored-out sequels will destroy the integrity of the original (see: “Matrix” series). If we really are faced with the advent of a third “Donnie Darko,” then this means the end of the original’s credibility as we know it. So before that happens, and before the name “Donnie Darko” is damned to the halls of mediocrity like “The Matrix,” let’s take a look at the original in hopes of clarifying, once and for all, just what the hell happened in it.
While one can wring some sense out of the movie alone, it usually helps to go to the official website that was used as a marketing tool during its initial release. There, the user is rewarded with a cache of invaluable information in the form of newspaper articles and the entirety of Roberta Sparrow’s book (also on the director’s cut DVD).
It’s nearly impossible to analyze the movie as a linear series of events. Instead, it’s best to start at the moment in time that is flagged as the birth of the Tangent Universe (TU), which signals the eventual destruction of existence as a whole. It is also phenomenally simpler if one views the Primary Universe (PU) as an organism with a working body and set of organs, just like a human body. Consider the TU, the beginning of which is marked by the appearance of the inexplicable jet engine, as a wound caused by something harmful introduced to the PU, or the body. Something like a knife. This then means the PU (body) is hit by an outside force (knife), which results in the birth of a TU (wound).
The birth of this TU creates two parallel realities, and if it is not “healed” properly, it will destroy the PU, or the “body.” Just as the human body can heal itself, the PU begins its own healing process by creating an Artifact, which can be analogized as a signal of pain sent to its body to inform it of its injury (TU). Upon its advent, the Artifact consequently chooses its Receiver – in this case Donnie. The establishment of a Receiver then automatically establishes the people around him as the Manipulated Living (ML). Consider the Receiver and ML to be like organs in a body, working to close up the bleeding wound (TU). Donnie, the Receiver, must deliver the Artifact (the jet engine) to the appropriate place and time before the TU collapses. Otherwise, the PU collapses along with it, and all of existence comes to an end (this is what Frank calls “the end of the world”). Consider this demise to be the body’s (PU’s) death by “bleeding out.”
If the Receiver succeeds in delivering the Artifact to the right time and place (thereby completing the PU’s healing process), the TU ends and the PU rewinds back to the moment of the TU’s inception so that time may proceed the way it should. The people who unknowingly served as the Manipulated Living in the TU wake up at this precise moment; whatever they experienced in the TU is quickly forgotten or remembered only as a dream as if it didn’t actually happen. But because it did happen, emotions experienced in this dream, which in reality are true memories, are more intense than normal dream emotions (this is why Jim Cunningham wakes up crying fitfully from his memories as a child molester). While this process doesn’t have a direct parallel within the human body analogy, it does suggest that the universe is a conscious, intelligent being. And much like tapeworms are unaware that their human host is actually a thinking, living creature, so must the ML remain unaware of any hints as to the consciousness of the universe in which they live.
There does remain the question of the Manipulated Dead, people in the TU who served as MLs but died before the TU was solved. These people, like Frank, return to help the Receiver deliver the Artifact in order to save themselves from the oblivion that would follow the TU’s collapse. The best human explanation for this phenomenon is what we call God. Indeed, discussion of divine intervention and the search for God is a prominent theme in the movie. This then begs a fascinating idea that is applicable to the real world; perhaps the consciousness of our universe or reality, as suggested in the movie, is the true form of what we consider to be God. Maybe there is no single powerful individual being, but an unperceived conscious energy or force hard at work in reality. The best part about “Donnie Darko” is that its explanation for reality and existence cannot be disproved and is, with our limited knowledge about our own existence, entirely applicable to reality.
Simply trying to puzzle “Donnie Darko” out is enough to make one’s head hurt for days, and this explanation is by no means one that encompasses all the mysteries in the movie. Through Donnie’s paranoid schizophrenia, the movie also includes the weak suggestion that the entire experience is simply a hallucination. After all, Donnie had been hallucinating even before he started visualizing Frank. But it’s a lot more fun to believe everything actually happened.
Unfortunately, masterpieces like the original “Donnie Darko” are impossible to come by in these days when Hollywood has hit rock bottom, relying on sequels and remakes instead of actual creativity and mental effort. Hopefully the rumors of a third “Darko” will stay as that — mere rumors — so that old fans and new viewers alike can enjoy the original in all its confusing and eerie glory.