“Donnie Darko” (2001) as an apocalyptic film
The following is a text that I wrote as an introduction to a film screening of Donnie Darko at Gießen University in May 2013. Some literary studies colleagues were organizing an “apocalyptic/postapocalyptic films” series in which they would introduce, show and discuss their favorite movies that fit into this genre, and I felt compelled to contribute Donnie Darko. I’m not quite sure why. Is Donnie Darko even an “apocalyptic film”? For this little talk I set out to find out.
Warning: Here be spoilers.
When at the beginning of Donnie Darko a mysterious man in a rabbit costume declares that “the world will end”1 in 28 days, this prediction inevitably sets the movie into the apocalyptic mode. At the same time, Donnie Darko is not a typical “apocalyptic” movie, particularly because the predicted end of the world never happens, at least not in the conventional sense, and it is no great surprise that it doesn’t happen: The movie takes place in the past, in October 1988, shortly before the US presidential election, and we all know that the world did not end in 1988. George Bush won the election, and life went on.
Or did it?
Donnie Darko was Richard Kelly’s first film. When it was released in October 2001, it flopped in movie theaters. As one film critic put it, “In the hypersensitive aftermath of Sept [ember] 11, the film’s distributor was understandably uncertain how to sell a film whose bizarre events are set in motion by a jet engine falling from the sky.”² Bad timing. However, the movie has since become something of a cult classic of its genre on DVD.³ The question is, which genre are we talking about?
What makes this movie successful from my point of view is its unique blend of at least three different movie genres:
The mundane, prosaic world of the uneventful suburb in which the story takes place, Donnie’s relationship with his new girlfriend, the high school scenes, and the Halloween party organized by the Darko siblings as soon as their parents leave the house, all make the movie a 1980s teen movie in the vein of The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Donnie’s visions of “Frank” and his nocturnal exploits come from the realm of psychological thrillers, and
the wormhole through which the jet engine travels back in time and creates a new timeline is a straightforward sci-fi element.
My point is that all three of these “genres” are essential to describing what the movie is about – e.g. the elements of suburban life, even family life, are not simply used as a backdrop for the horror elements, but form an integral part of the story: The movie is about Donnie Darko’s coming of age as much as it is about, say, time travel. It is a 1980s teen movie as much as it is a thriller with sci-fi elements.
One could add that Donnie Darko is also a “period” movie, in a way, since it was released in 2001 and the action takes place in 1988. However, I would argue that thirteen years are not at all a typical time span for a film set in the past. Thus, it is probably also one of the first movies ever to comment on the 1980s as a past era, from a slight distance. It is indeed full of references to the period: The soundtrack uses a lot of 1980s music, and 1980s movies explicitly referenced in Donnie Darko include: Back to the Future, The Evil Dead, The Last Temptation of Christ, E.T. – The Extraterrestrial, American Werewolf, and Frightmare. As a side note, the movie also abounds in references to literature and the visual arts – e.g. M.C. Escher’s art is prominently featured in the movie, and the name of Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen Ross, inevitably brings in Goethe’s Faust, whose devil-haunted protagonist has a girlfriend of the same name.
So what does Donnie Darko tell us about the apocalyptic movie genre?
For one thing, it tells us that the apocalypse does not have to happen on screen, or at all in the external world. Viewed as a psychological thriller, a lot of the action could be said to take place in the mind anyway. Thus, the apocalypse of Donnie Darko could be interpreted as a subjective apocalypse, an apocalypse of the mind: Donnie’s sure knowledge that the world is about to end for him because he is about to die. Donnie himself is shown to be an “inside-out” character, as is hinted at when he asks the Halloween-costumed apparition Frank, “[Why are you] wearing that stupid bunny suit”, and the apparition asks back, “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”1 This response, apart from being one of the creepiest lines in the movie, could be read to mean that Donnie Darko really is the supernatural hero who follows the ‘channels of God’, and is only wearing the angry young man who apparently commits acts of vandalism out of boredom as a disguise, much like Superman wears Clark Kent’s suit and tie as a disguise.
At the same time, a more literal science fiction reading of the movie entails that the apocalyptic catastrophe does happen, but in another timeline from ours, a timeline that has branched off at the beginning of October 1988, and that it is Donnie’s mission to destroy. This idea invites us to speculate: Maybe the world actually ends, or would end, all the time, but it is continually saved by a few more or less initiated heroes who are able to travel backward through time, creating new timelines, and hence we never notice it happening. The character of “Grandma Death” in the movie points to this possibility. The old lady, who has written a book about time travel and seldom speaks to anyone, is treated as a nutcase by the people of the town, but parallels between Donnie Darko’s visions and things described in her book strongly suggest that “Grandma Death” has had the same experiences when she was young. Donnie reads her book – in the language of the Book of Revelation, he has been found worthy to open and read the scroll, and to become the lamb that was slain. His willing self-sacrifice for love (through which he may or may not be saving the entire world from destruction) turns him into a secret Christ figure, an unseen martyr. (I am reminded of a leading article in Die Zeit Magazin from March 2013, which centers around the question whether some of the Catholic saints would nowadays be prescribed ataractics like the ones Donnie Darko takes.4) In the context of Donnie as martyr or saint, again, it is interesting that he is an inverted saint in that unlike the medieval saints he loses his virginity (and succumbs to other temptations) before completing his task.
The movie is also about “apocalypse” in the literal sense, a “revelation”. Frank, the apparition in the rabbit costume, acts as the revealer who tells Donnie what will happen, and what he is to do. Whereas John the Revelator fell lifeless at the feet of the risen Christ (who was dead and behold, he lives forever), Donnie stands grinning before a guy in a bunny costume (actually a kind of ghost of someone who is yet to be killed).
By the way: What a grand idea that the sci-fi/horror setting has made possible: If ghosts are spirits of dead people that have been liberated from the constraints of space and time, why should not the ghost of someone appear who hasn’t died yet – a ghost from the future? The idea makes perfect sense, and I can hardly understand why (apparently) no one has ever thought of it before. It is as if Prince Hamlet was not visited by the ghost of his dead father, but the ghost of Polonius who is yet to be killed. (Donnie Darko actually bears a number of striking resemblances to Hamlet, which I will not bother you with right now.)
Frank (or Frank’s ghost) is not only the revealer, but also Donnie’s supernatural guide, and thus an agent of the micro-apocalypses/cataclysms that occur when Donnie floods his high school and baptizes the house of positive-thinking guru Jim Cunningham with fire. Very fittingly, Donnie has previously expressed his problems with the shallow ‘fear vs. love’ worldview of Cunningham’s apostles, and in a culminating moment called the self-help guru “the fucking Anti-Christ”,1 so that the viewer feels the destruction Donnie later brings over Cunningham’s house to be a sort of divine judgment – the cathartic fire literally reveals Cunningham’s secret sins, and the world is shocked to discover that the abomination of desolation had been standing in the ‘holiest’ of places. Donnie is not only the recipient, but also the main agent of the apocalypse.
And yet, it is not quite as easy as that. At a higher level of abstraction, Donnie does live through precisely what Cunningham’s shallow feel-good self-help videos were all about: In the end, he must overcome fear through love, and the text he reads from a card during the ‘lifeline’ exercise at school mirrors his own life. In the end, it seems the core of “Antichrist” Cunningham’s message was right – just oversimplified, and overshadowed by the suburban angst that identifies drugs, alcohol and premarital sex as the greatest evils in the world.
Another possible “message” implied by the movie itself could be that it makes “sense” of the apparently meaningless tragic death of a teenager. Even though for Donnie’s family it remains a horribly tragic accident that killed Donnie, the viewers are comforted by the secret knowledge that in a parallel universe Donnie has willingly chosen his fate for love. Within the fictional world, however, it is Donnie alone who receives the apocalyptic comfort that his personal catastrophe is serving a higher purpose.
Two more side notes about the movie:
For one, there are two different versions of the movie, and the original theatrical version (the one we are watching) is generally judged to be better. The second version is a slightly longer director’s cut, which, however, commits the unpardonable sin of explaining things a bit more. As I said in the beginning, one of the strengths of the movie is its unique blend of different genres, and the resulting ambiguities and different possible interpretations. The director’s cut got rid of a lot of the ambiguities by including excerpts from “Grandma Death’s” book about time travel, that explain to the viewer what is going on with the wormholes and the parallel universes. The movie’s fans’ general reaction to this what comparable to the outcry created when Star Wars – Episode I explained the legendary “force” as a biochemical phenomenon in the blood cells. As if Jar Jar Binks had not been a pill hard enough to swallow.
Secondly: There is a sequel, called S. Darko, which has nothing to do with the makers of Donnie Darko, but is rather a cheap horror movie that fulfils the genre’s “persecuted young damsel in underpants” clichés. Take my advice and do not ever watch it.
Patrick Maiwald, April/May 2013
- Kelly, Richard (2001). Donnie Darko: Shooting script. Screenplays for you. 22 April 2013. http://sfy.ru/?script=donnie_darko
- Kois, Dan (2004). “Everything you were afraid to ask about Donnie Darko.” 23 July 2004. 22 April 2013. http://www.salon.com/2004/07/23/darko
- Melin, Eric (2008). “Eric’s Top 10 Flops Turned Classics.” 26 May 2008. 22 April 2013. http://www.scene-stealers.com/top-10s/erics-top-10-flops-turned-classics
- Friedrichs, Julia (2013). “Waren die Heiligen verrückt?” Die Zeit Magazin 14/2013. 27 March 2013.