Donnie Darko first premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 9 of 2001. Twenty-eight days, six hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds, and twenty years later, the film is still as unique, as mysterious, and as watchable as it was then.
With a budget of just $4.5 million, the film made $7.5 million in the box office during its theatrical release, which began on October 26 of 2001. It was not a particularly impressive box office, but this was only a little over a month following the September 11 attacks. Subsequently, the film could barely be advertised, as a plane crashing and its engine falling into Donnie’s bedroom is a key element of the premise.
Following the theatrical release, Donnie Darko was surprisingly successful in DVD purchases, and the film slowly gained cult classic status. This allowed for the director’s cut to be released on May 29, 2004, featuring 20 minutes of extra footage (arguably doing a lot to explain the plot) at the Seattle International Film Festival. The same day that tickets became available, this premiere was sold out.
In 2003, there was also the release of “The Donnie Darko Book” by Richard Kelly, the writer and director of the film. In the book he delves deeper into the world of Donnie Darko and discusses how he went about various concept design and production aspects of the film. Kelly has said that the film is more autobiographical than anything else. Kelly was around Donnie’s age in 1988, the year that the film takes place, and he had a lot of the same fears and anxieties that Donnie deals with throughout the film. Teenagers today are still able to relate to the movie, despite how different things are now than they were in the late 80s. In the words of Kelly, perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When Kelly was a kid, a piece of ice fell from a jet, and crashed through the roof of his neighbors’ house into their son’s empty bedroom. Kelly read about the story in the news, and he describes this as when he first started thinking about the script. Of course, he did not officially start it until many years later, having decided that in order to be a filmmaker he needed to write a script. Once officially started, the script was done in 28 days, and the film also was shot over the course of 28 days, both mirroring the time frame in the film.
Kelly’s main thought in writing the script was based on what a person might think if a giant piece of ice had fallen into their bedroom from the sky while they were somewhere else. Ideas along the lines of ‘is this a message from above?’, and ‘did they have harmful intent and just make a mistake?’. Interestingly, a piece of ice falling from a jet and into people’s homes is a more common occurrence than one might think. A google search on the topic returns a number of news articles from different people in different places at different times, all who have experienced this. However, the chunks of ice are usually quite a bit smaller than a jet engine.
Fundamentally, Donnie Darko is a coming of age movie. Throughout the film, Donnie and his peers are all coming to terms with their places in the world. But for Donnie, the place in the world is as a doomed living receiver in a tangent universe who is given the responsibility of preventing the end of the world. There are many theories attempting to explain what happens in the film, and even just confusion regarding what it is all really about, and reasonably so. A popular theory is that Donnie is dead throughout the entirety of the film, but in response to this Kelly has said: “life and death can perhaps coexist, [and] time is not necessarily a purely linear thing.” The majority of theories about the film have been debunked by Kelly, and he is yet to give any finite explanation. But in the words of Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps the film is not really meant to be understood in the first place.
A possible explanation is based on how some people, in moments where they fear they are close to death, have their lives flash before their eyes. Perhaps Donnie instead has a potential future flash before his. Throughout the film, there is a recurring image of an extreme close-up of a blue eye, what appears to be one of Donnie’s eyes. Arguably, this could be Donnie looking up at the falling jet engine, and in his final seconds, imagining what he might do if he survives.
At the very start of the movie, he appears to have somewhat troublesome family relationships. For example, in his final interaction with his mother, he calls her a rude slang term. However, in the tangent universe, he has a positive interaction with his father, his mother before she and his younger sister leave to go on a trip, and even with his older sister, after finding out she got accepted to Harvard. Also, throughout the film, Donnie acts particularly rebellious, but there is information to suggest that he was not always like this. At one point, his mother states that ever since the jet engine crashed through his bedroom, he’s been acting differently.
Perhaps what happens in the tangent universe is Donnie living out all the things he wishes he would have done. He vandalizes the school, he gets a girlfriend, he tells off the teacher he hates and the life coach he doesn’t respect, and he loses his virginity. But that is all he has time to imagine. The blue eye is looking up at the engine as it falls, and it is clear that the end of the world, as Donnie knows it, is too close to escape. Subsequently, Gretchen dies in his fantasy, and Frank does too. He drives as far away as he can, only to see bizarre weather patterns signifying the end of the world from even further away. The engine is too close. There is no longer any reason for him to concern himself with what he might do if he survives, because he can see how big the engine is and he can see how quickly it’s falling.
But even still, how can it all be in his mind? In this tangent universe, the plane his mother is on crashes. It is the engine from that plane that falls into Donnie’s bedroom. And so, for Donnie to die in the first place, the tangent universe must exist because it is what is responsible for killing him.
So, this theory doesn’t make sense either. The audience is left with so many questions, and perhaps that is what is really so engaging about Donnie Darko. The film does reveal an answer, but there is still a mystery to solve. Every potential theory has some hole or some flaw, or some small little idea that doesn’t quite add up or fit in. Even after twenty years of watching the film, it is still unclear what the answer to everything really is.