by Jaimie Grijalba
Note: This is my last essay for the Sci-Fi Countdown of Wonders in the Dark on the first film directed by Richard Kelly. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had to write about the three films of one of my favorite directors of all time, and may this be a testament that I want a new film by him. Any film. Thanks to those that took the time to read these essays, which are more and more personal, and may we have a wonderful top 50 Science Fiction films of all time.
Another note: This Might Contain Spoilers.
I think one of the hardest things that someone can do is trying to write about your favorite film of all time… and, yes, Donnie Darko is still my favorite film of all time at my 26 years old. It might seem childish to some, but it’s one that feels the closest to my heart in many ways, and while I’ll try to attempt to explain why, I honestly don’t want to expose myself that much, so maybe I’ll focus as much as I can in the science fiction aspects of the film, mainly because I think that it’s why it had so many votes… or is it?
For al the science and the fiction that matters, the film portrays one element that would relate directly to it: a time travel towards the end, where the main character jumps back to the moment where a jet engine is about to fall onto his room, but instead of jumping out and meeting with Frank, he laughs and stays, thus changing the future and “correcting” history, becoming a super hero and some sort of Christ like figure that sacrifices itself to save the rest from the sins of humanity, that are thoroughly dissected and exposed in the film that we just saw. That, just on the surface level, and that is if you actually think he travelled back in time, instead of “dreaming it all”, like many theories support.
The Director’s Cut of the film, released in 2004, pointed towards a huge number of hints that clarify the science fiction nature of the events that happen, from the appearance of Frank the Rabbit as a Manipulated Dead (someone who dies in the timeline, and thus can be manipulated by those who have the powers of controlling time and space, so these dead can travel through space and appear invisible to all people except for the chosen one that is the Receiver), to how everything that happens is part of a plan that executes Donnie to perfection (here he challenges the concept of free will, and thus fails and acknowledges the presence of superior beings –similar to Gods- who know how to fix when something goes wrong, like a jet engine falling from the sky). I personally adore this cut and prefer it to the Theatrical. Why? Because I think that the science fiction elements and experience that the lore of the film expands makes the whole movie much more worth watching.
What I’m trying to say is: What’s the point of a film that only happens in the head of a teenager? No matter how “great” the experience was, I don’t care and I’m not interested in another narrative where the character wakes up and finds out that everything was a dream. The Director’s Cut (and to the Theatrical Cut too, even though to a lesser extent) points towards the use of time travel, much like in the other two films that I’ve discussed before by this director, but here is made explicit (with a book called ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’ being a centerpiece prop that makes the rounds and is read in intertitles in the Director’s Cut) and has its own clear rules.
I think I’ve talked before about my obsession with time travel, and not necessarily out of my own personal necessity to change or divert something in the past or to peek into the future, it’s just the overall experience that fascinates me. It’s almost scientific, and maybe the only science that you’ll find in me, and if I could ever become some kind of physicist that could only talk and explain time travel, I would do that. It’s about the transportation of physical particles through the thread of time that seems unmovable is a concept that seems impossible, but down deep in me, it fluctuates between being something probable but that hasn’t been solved yet, and something that already exists but that it’s used so scarcely, that I’ll never have any chance of doing it myself. ‘Donnie Darko’ becomes the realization of that dream through what I’ve called ‘mind time travel’, as it’s only when he’s ready that he travels back, and not before.
But the character of Donnie doesn’t only embody my desire of traveling in time, as at the time of the first time I watched it, it represented me in more ways that I’m comfortable in saying. I could see myself in the way he spoke, acted and moved, and even in how he confronted the issues that he approaches in the film. I could see myself and that terrified me… it’s a frightful thought that you can see who you are through the screen and then realize that it understands you better than you think, no necessarily convincing into doing the same things, but giving me the choice at the time, something that maybe Donnie was never able to have.
Even though it clearly doesn’t have the same impact, it still hits me hard and there are sequences and scenes that almost bring me to tears, like the two conversations Donnie has with his parents separately, the one where he asks if he’s insane, and his mother says that it feels wonderful to have a wacko of a son, and his father says that those who bother him should be told to “fuck off”. Those two scenes revealed me the layers of those characters to bring up an emotional response in me, something that I’d never expect, specially after all these years of convincing myself that maybe I was wrong when I said that it was my favorite film of all time, but alas, I can’t avoid it, it’s wonderful in every sense, and it still has enough juice in it to put me as a weak child, trembling and on the verge of crying, recognizing that some favorites are better where you think they are and where they should be.