When it comes to the reception of Donnie Darko, two things are guaranteed. First, that even twenty years on from its initial release the film remains a cult classic. And second, no one understands the ending the first time they watch it.
We’re not going to explain the ending to you because after all, part of the fun is watching the film for the second, third, and fourth time. What we can do is give you a nudge in the right direction with a little help from Roberta Sparrow’s “The Philosophy of Time Travel.” In case you missed it, this is the fictional book that Donnie discovers in the film.
In the book, time travel occurs in the fourth dimension. When the world is in great peril, a tangent universe is created using a metal artifact that connects the two universes. Remember the airplane engine that crashes into Donnie’s room? This is the metal artifact that enables the tangent universe to be created. The rest of the movie takes place in this tangent world.
The mission is then to guide the metal artifact back to the primary universe. A living receiver is chosen to carry out this mission and surprise surprise, that living receiver is Donnie. The living receiver is plagued by terrifying dreams and visions and is given fourth-dimensional powers. Donnie’s journey in the film takes him up to a point where he is able to return the artifact to the primary universe, which leads to his own death.
Frank, the creepy giant bunny, is chosen to manipulate Donnie into following his path. This makes sense when you think about the fact that Frank influences many of Donnie’s decisions in the movie. He is even the reason that Donnie isn’t killed by the artifact right at the start of the movie. Gretchen also manipulates Donnie, leading him to a point where he has no choice but to send the artifact back to the primary universe before that universe collapses in on itself. Note that Frank and Gretchen are the two characters that die in the tangent universe.
Confused yet? We don’t blame you. The philosophy of time travel is complicated and the plot is tangled and requires several rewatches for any of this to make sense. If you want to read up more on the fictional book on which the movie is based, you can find out more here. But essentially, Donnie Darko is a time-traveling superhero.