Skip to main content

Donnie Darko And The Philosophy Of Time Travel

Donnie Darko

A legend for the modern times.

A legend for the modern times.

Who is Donnie Darko?

Gretchen; "Donnie Darko? What the hell kind of name is that? It sound like some sort of super hero. Donnie: "What makes you think I'm not?"

At it's very core the 2001 film known as "Donnie Darko" is the tale of a troubled youth trying to find his place in a strange world. If we start to look deeper and really explore the film we can see the scope of underlying potentials within the film. The most important, or at least in terms of this study, is the concept of time travel.

Time travel is no stranger to the big screen. "Back to the Future" and more recently "Butterfly Effect" made use of various time traveltechniques to capture audience attention. These films sort of laid time travel out in proud terms "Donnie Darko" left a great deal to the imagination. The exploration of time travel in "Donnie Darko" is one that is very unique to say the least. The entire film is very closely associated with a fictitious book called "The Philosophy of Time Travel" by Roberta Sparrow. This book details the events unfolding in the film. While the book is entirely a product of the creator's mind it is widely considered one of the best pieces of literature about time travel.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko

The Book

The Film


First we must look at time itself before we can even begin to dissect the book or the film. Time in the Donnie Darko sense, is a dimension that basically measures the universe. This universe remains is steady motion, moving forward at it's own pace. The universe, or at least the one we live in, is the primary universe. All existence as we know it functions in this universe.

According to Sparrow's text the 4th dimension of time is a stable construct. Stable but not without flaw. This 4th dimension can be altered and even compromised. When this altercation occurs it creates a rip in the universal fabric creating what is referred to as a tangent universe. The tangent universe exist alongside of but completely separate from the primary universe.

The most crucial part of the tangent universe is if it is not restored to it's original state, which is the primary universe, it will destroy both itself and the primary universe as well. The tangent universe is unstable and will only be able to sustain itself for a few weeks.

This why Donnie's mission is so rushed by those around him, namely Frank. Frank exist as a guide if you will. This particular guide has much to gain by the resetting of the primary universe and on equal terms much to lose of Donnie were to fail in his mission.

It is through this guide Donnie becomes acquainted with time travel as it exist in his world, which to say the least is a very troubling one.

Donnie explained

How is the tangent universe created?

The happening is still somewhat a mystery. The first indicator of a tangent universe is the appearance of what is called the artifact. The introduction of an artifact signals a change in the primary universe and the beginning of the tangent one. Artifacts will at first have no logical explanation for why they are where they are and just what purpose they may serve in the universe. Those who are near the vortex when the artifact comes through will experience a great change.

The primary rule for an artifact is it must be a metal vessel. Metal is the transitional element in time travel. I found this to be most interesting and could not help but think of Doc Brown and the dalorian from "Back To The Future". I think as far as artifacts go the time machine fits snuggly into the description. Sadly the artifact young Donnie comes home to is not a fancy car but a full scale jet engine.

The arrival of the jet engine in Donnie’s room is the prime indicator that the tangent universe has been formed. It is large, metal, and appears without any true explanation. "The Philosophy of Time Travel" tells us the living will seek out the artifact with great curiosity. This is true in Donnie’s case as various authoritive figures ascend on Donnie’s humble home to quickly take away the artifact for testing. Not only do authorities seek out the artifact but the entire town seems to be concerned with it.

We know that through "The Philosophy of Time Travel" that this artifact, the jet engine, has come through the primary universe of the future to find itself altering the past. This in many ways creates an alternative time line where the things that have happened to allow the artifact to exist in this plane can be changed.

Frank is Donnie's nightmare, yet mentor

Frank the Bunny

Frank the Bunny

The Living Receiver

According to Sparrow’s work the living receiver is chosen to guide the artifact back to it’s rightful place in the primary universe. This person will receive 4th dimensional powers that will aid in the assistance of completing their task. At first you may be scratching your head and asking what powers Donnie had in the film. Recall the mascot statue. It was made of bronze yet Donnie, a teenage boy was able to bury an axe into the metal statue. This strength was a direct result of his being chosen as the living receiver. Donnie also made the sprinklers at Jim Cunningham’s house go off. This implied that he had some sort of ESP ability.

Despite the great power the receiver will gain he or she will also suffer from horrendous nightmares and visions. In Donnie’s case Frank the Bunny provides these episodic fits of confusion and fear. Donnie Darko becomes the willing recipient of great responsibility. His actions will directly affect how the primary and tangent universe co-exist. This is a great task for anyone to have to undergo but Donnie seems to not belong anyway. He is an unlikely hero, maybe even a super hero.

The Manipulated Living

Those near the artifact are called the manipulated living. They sense a disturbance but fail to grasp it to the degree the living receiver does. Those close to Donnie are the manipulated living as well. They unwittingly seek to restore the order that was broken when the artifact ripped through the universal divides and created the tangent universe within the primary one.

Scroll to Continue

These individuals exhibit behaviors and attitudes that they would never express in the primary universe. This creates a downward spiral. For instance Donnie’s mother seems the over protective type in the real primary universe. In the tangent she exhibits a more laid back attitude. The manipulated dead are aware of a great change but not sure what it is or why it may be happening.

Frank the Bunny

Donnie, Gretchin, and Frank

A true Motely Crew

A true Motely Crew

The Manipulated Dead

These beings are the key to the return of the primary universe. They are actually more powerful than the receiver is and more adept to the changes the tangent universe has brought about. using the 4th dimensional construct, which is water, the dead may make contact with the living receiver. They have lost their lives in this tangent existence and therefore their goals are to restore the primary universe to regain the life lost in the tangent universe. This relates to what I said earlier as to why Frank has so much to lose or gain based on Donnie's quest.

The water like spear we see throughout Donnie Darko’s journey is considered the manipulated dead guiding Donnie to where he needs to be. In knowing that their failure to restore order is their failure to regain the life they had the manipulated dead will stop at nothing to return the artifact.

Frank the Bunny represents two aspects of "The Philosophy of Time Travel". He acts as both a hallucination plaguing Donnie and tormenting his sleep, but he is also a prime and definitive example of the manipulated dead. Frank is the factor that sets Donnie Darko’s actions into working order and gets the processes to restore the artifact to the primary universe started. Frank influences the very impressionable Donnie Darko to flood the school allowing him to meet Gretchen (who may also be a member of the manipulated dead) which sets a new direction for Donnie. It is Frank who directs Donnie to burn down the home of Jim Cunningham revealing a collection of pedophilic pornography and leading to Cunningham's arrest. This arrest sets in motion a chain of events that puts Donnie’s mother on the plane that hosted the jet engine that acted as the artifact in the first place. Frank’s entire motivation is to save the world thus saving himself.

The Site

Time Travel from other Hubbers

The End of the Journey

Donnie Darko succeeds in returning the universe to it’s stable variant but in doing so every person is affected. Donnie loses his life of course, but he does so to protect those he loves. When people awaken from the tangent universe they sense some memory of the alternative reality they experienced. Miss Pomeroy, Mr. Monitoff and Cherita all awaken to a happier existence knowing that the tragedy of the tangent universe is over. Their existence there was plagued by misfortune.

Others awaken with guilt and dread. Jim Cunningham awakens to a tear felt heart ache of knowing what he was in the tangent universe. His trip there was one that brought him sadness.

Each trip to the tangent universe creates an alternative line of time existence. This line creates an unstable working of the time we know. It is disturbing to think of how one may come to the realization of what they are in another plane of being and come to question who they really are here.

What can we take away?

The film "Donnie Darko" is more than a look at a troubled life or a flawed existence. It is much deeper than that. It isn’t an epilogue of time travel or a supernatural talewinched from dreams and nightmares. It is the story of possibilities. The story of unlikely heroes and unlikely scenarios. "Donnie Darko" is the story of what ifs. The film is something to inspire about but fear at the same time. We gain so much from so little. Donnie Darko, who is an outcast kid with a hopeful future shrouded in misbehavior becomes the hero the world needed at a time it did not even know it needed one. No one will ever know he is a hero. It will never be known he saved the world from total annihilation, but he did.

When you watch the film do so with an open mindand really look at the characters. You know them already. The teacher who tries so hard to instill something in her students regardless of the price she must pay in the end. The old lady who lives in the weird part of town that no one understands but at one point she did something great. What about the little girl who just can not seem to find our place. The one who spends her time knee deep in books and ways out. Are these not the people we see and know everyday.

Looking at that aspect of the film can we not assume Donnie Darko is a little of each of us. all have that rebellious side, the side that screams for attention. We all play outcast and loser eventually. Maybe "Donnie Darko" is an inspirational film to tell all of us everybodies that we can make a difference in the world. I encourage you to check the film out and to really give it some thought.

A Word From Donnie

I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.


Sam Little (author) from Wheelwright KY on May 02, 2013:

I am glad you enjoyed it. It is my all time favorite film really. I just love the philosophical view.

jklahlou on May 01, 2013:

Thanks for the article. Brilliant film. One of my favourites!

Related Articles