Donnie Darko
Franks Eye

Alternative Explanations

There is little doubt that this movie is very much open to interpretation. There are several possible explanations and in most cases plenty of viewers will love it even though they have no idea what happened. To be honest there can't be many people who completely understood the movie the first time they watched it unless they had some inside knowledge.

The real explanation follows "The Philosophy of Time Travel" and you can read it here. When you follow this explanation there doesn't seem to be any holes in the plot. Every scene makes sense, the story is consistent and the whole movie comes together.

Here are some of the alternative theories.


Dr ThurmanIt is implied in the film that Donnie is a schizophrenic and therefore the film is him going through an episode of his illness. This theory is plausible because every single event could be put down to this. Hallucinations and hearing voices is a schizophrenic trait and could easily explain Frank’s appearance. There is a scene with Donnie’s therapist at the end of the film where she admits to giving Donnie placebo’s as medication for his illness. This would suggest that he in fact never was a schizophrenic. For me Richard Kelly put the idea of Donnie being schizophrenic into the movie deliberately as a red herring. It's an easier alternative theory that allows first time viewers to still enjoy the movie.


Frank in the cloudsThe whole movie was a dream theory is of course possible but ultimately pointless. When he goes to sleep on October 2nd at the beginning of the movie he dreams this mystical adventure just before he gets smooshed by jet engine.

The obvious hole in this theory is why do the first few minutes of October 2nd happen twice? An easy theory to enjoy maybe for the first watch but why would the director create this amazing magical alternative Universe theory and then just make it all out to be a dream?

Donnie Is Shown the Future

The Ghost Of Christmas FutureThis is quite a popular theory. It portrays Frank as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future character who saves Donnie and then either shows him or allows him to live the next 28 days of his life. At the end Donnie returns back to October 2nd and now has the opportunity to choose his own fate.

So many bad things happened in those 28 days including his girlfriend getting killed and Donnie becoming a killer himself that he decides to stay in bed at the end of the film to sacrifice himself for the good of others. By dying he saves Frank, Gretchen and his mother and sister from a plane crash.

Unfortunately this theory asks more questions than it answers:

  • Why is Frank giving Donnie this choice?
  • Why does he tell Donnie to Flood the school and burn down Jim Cunningham’s house?
  • Why does Frank appear as a dead version and an alive version?
  • Why does “The Philosophy Of Time Travel” appear in the story?
  • How does the unexplained jet engine figure in the story?

The biggest weakness in this theory is the fact that Donnie is shown or lives out a completely different future from what would normally have happened. Most of the events only happen because we are within a Tangent Universe.

  • Frank gets Donnie to flood the school which means Donnie walks Gretchen home.
  • Frank gets Donnie to burn down Cunningham's house which leads to the party
  • Donnie rips the engine off the plane his mother and sister are on

None of these things would happen in the real world. What's the point in Donnie being shown an alternate future and then given the choice to live or die based on events that wont happen?

There are just too many plot flaws with this theory. It just doesn't work and there are virtually no scenes in the movie to back it up.

The Looping Tangent Universe

Carpathian Ridgehere is a theory out there that follows The Philosophy of Time Travel but with one major change. The idea is that every 28 days the Tangent Universe collapses, then loops back round to October 2nd and starts over again. Basically the Tangent Universe is a repeating time-loop that will continue until Donnie is successful in returning the jet engine into the Primary Universe. The film is Donnie's first successful attempt at returning the jet engine and there have been several failed attempts before.

This explanation can be read at One of the reasons this theory is so popular is it usually comes up on the first page of google if search for a Donnie Darko explanation.

I don't think this idea follows The Philosophy Of Time Travel accurately enough. The Tangent Universe only lasts for several weeks before it collapses and destroys the whole Universe. If it looped back round every time then the Universe wouldn't be in danger.

This theory seems to hinge on only a few pieces of the movie. The main basis of this theory is that Donnie wakes up on the mountain laughing at the beginning of the film. He's laughing as if he remembers something from the previous Tangent Universe loop.

Now the major flaw there is Donnie wakes up on the mountain on October 1st yet the Tangent Universe doesn't start until midnight on October 2nd. Why would time loop round to before the start of the Tangent Universe? Another thing is wouldn't you find it a little amusing if you woke up half way up a mountain. Surely that is a better explanation for him laughing.

Another huge flaw in this theory is if it was true the Universe would never be in any danger. Everytime Donnie failed the 28 days would just restart. This goes completely gainst the PoTT and makes the whole thing quite pointless.

Another point in this theory is the characters like Mrs Pomeroy, Grandma Death, Dr. Thurman all seem to have some kind of inside knowledge and a sense of what's going, like they have done this before. Well yes they do but not because they have done this several times before, it's because they are the Manipulated Living. There behaviour may be irrational or bizarre as they are trying to guide the Living Receiver to return the Artifact. They subconsciously behave in the necessary way in order for Donnie to succeed.

July 25th 2015 | 18:47:48

@Ringo Seed
took the words right outta my mouth.

Now go suck a fuck!

Ringo Seed
July 12th 2015 | 20:24:49

Donnie Darko to me is the savior that was chosen by god to keep his master plan going, the movie was his journey figuring this out. There are a lot of key points that suggest this to me, eg: When Dr Thurman says "Is the search for god absurd" English Teacher "Deus Ex Machina" then being able to see the future . At the end where he resurrects Grechen he purges her of sin and erases all memory of him from her , he performs many miracles during the movie, travels through portals, speeds up time, can see gods predestined paths, and many others. At the end many debate that there is no reason for him to die but he has chosen to, because he figures out gods master plan and accepts it. That goes back to the Dr Monnitoff scene where he says "If we were able to see our destinies, manifest themselves visually, then we would be given a choice to betray our destinies, the mere fact that this choice exist would make all preformed destinies come to an end" Donnie responds "Not if you travel within God's channel". It's one of the best movies to me because Donnie is a student not bound by religion or science so he can subscribe to both god and science through time travel philosophy, he fights for what is right and asks the real questions in life to later figure them out. At the end when he returns to PU he looks at the twister and says "I'm going home", this scene is actually beautiful to me because in between the twister and the cloud there's a beautiful light, it's like heaven. To me there's little chance he's talking about going home to his family in suburbia, which also bypasses the fear of being alone since he knows when he dies he will go back to heaven, his home . That's how I have taken the movie I'm agnostic like the character and is in search for some answers no one really knows, I'm not religious, not a scientist, just a normal guy. The first time I saw the movie I had little knowledge of what was going on, watching it again at a older age made the story richer. With that being said, see you fuck asses.

July 9th 2015 | 9:08:18

I think the main explanation from this site fits best and the time-loop theory as written on the listed link has some flaws. Time-loop as an extension of the main explanation is however possible in my opinion:


1) Everything in the main explanation is included as a basis for this addition although some of it will be replaced, particularly things directly regarding backwards time travel.
2) Donnie waking up on the mountain laughing is just because he was sleepwalking. He was already in therapy, already sleepwalking . . . just because he was a bit messed up although not to the point of seeing rabbits.
3) The timeline in the Tangent Universe runs from when the Jet Engine begins to fall from the sky, as in maybe a minute or so before it crashes through the roof of Donnies house.

I think the best way to start this extension is by asking: What happens when a Manipulated Dead travels through the fourth dimension, back in time? For example, when Frank dies and returns as Dead-Frank to wake Donnie at the start of the film. Does Frank return to the same Tangent Universe as a copy of himself? Both Frank and Dead-Frank in the same Tangent.

The same could be true of Gretchen. Is the Gretchen Donnie meets a copy of a Gretchen? Or are some of the times he meets her a copy and some not. She goes to English class claiming she had been put in the wrong one. Could the "real" Gretchen be in a different class or even attend a different school? That is entirely speculative, meant to show it as plausible.

Another explanation, and the basis for my loop-extension theory could be that in going back in time, any Manipulated Dead create a copy of the Tangent Universe. This copy need not cause further problems like the first Tangent did, although it would not necessarily matter if they did. This would remove the paradox of causality should multiple copies of people (dead or alive) encounter each other. It would also explain why Dead Frank may have knowledge of his previous or alternate selves, being from a different Tangent himself and possibly meeting another Dead Frank in his original Tangent.

The Primary Universe would end when the first Tangent collapses. But since a Manipulated Dead would have the knowledge of this, and the ability to travel back in time within the Tangent (or a copy thereof) then it would surely follow that before the end of the particular Tangent, any Manipulated Dead, quite literally anyone who dies in the Tangent, or indeed all of them, would travel back in time to stop the destruction of the Primary Universe. This means that the Universe is in danger but only if all of the Manipulated Dead give up and do not go back in time. Most likely the artefact will eventually be returned, if nothing else then by Infinite Monkey Theorem.

So say unknown Manipulated Dead, "Steve", "Jeff" and "Bob" could all travel back in time, creating three Tangent copies. In one of these copies Bob could kill Frank as a means of creating a Manipulated Dead who was closer to Donnie. Frank then through a series of Tangent-Copies manipulates events each time such that he eventually creates an Ensurance Trap where Donnie kills Frank. Or Frank could have died anyway in the Original Tangent.

This theory requires that either both Frank and Gretchen have come from a previous Tangent to the Film-Tangent, either appearing to Donnie whilst their Film-Tangent selves are not nearby, or Gretchen could kill her Film-Tangent self (who then could go back in time, creating another Tangent copy in case the Film-Tangent fails). Alternatively Film-Tangent Gretchen could be a Manipulated Living, when she dies in the film she would become a Manipulated Dead and go back in time, but this would create a Copy-Tangent. Manipulated Dead have no control over the Tangent they die in until linearly after they die.

Manipulated Dead would not have to go all the way back in a new Tangent. Frank could have done the eventual Film Tangent in stages, getting one part right then going back only so far and doing fine adjustments to future timelines. A Manipulated Dead could also pass through many Tangent timelines in this way. So Dead-Frank could have travelled through countless timelines.

But in the Film Tangent, Donnie returns the Artefact. How will this affect things? Any Copy-Tangent would need to send the Artefact back to the Prime Universe. The greatest problem with this is that there could be many Donnies in many Tangents, all of whom could end up sending the Artefact back. Thousands of Jet Engines falling from the sky in the Prime Tangent, this might not break the 4th dimension mechanics but would confuse the hell out of everyone in the Prime Tangent.

Quantum Mechanics may have the answer to this, something I am not an expert on. My limited knowledge of it comes from asking a question regarding the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (Hugh Everett, father of Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett). My question upon seeing this was that if each possible action (time travel or not) creates a parallel universe, where does the energy come from? There is limited energy so is that not too many universes? Upon searching for an answer to this question I found that it was best answered by another question . . . “What you are really asking is surely that is too many quantum states?”. This is where I get a little lost as I have not looked at the intense mathematics which would back this up. I have however done some mathematics with n-dimensional vectors. I think what it is saying is that like Electrons can be “everywhere at once”, particles could appear across multiple universes at once, creating different outcomes in those universes, but with the same particles. Your atoms could be inside a star in some other universe.

How this affects Donnie Darko is that setting the Jet Engine to appear as it does in the Prime Universe could be done by multiple Donnies without creating multiple engines, assuming the time travel experienced by the various people is actually caused by altered quantum states. Again I am not an expert in this so I may have it wrong, an answer from someone who actually knows about such things would be interesting, to me at least.

It would also follow that there would be more than one Prime Universe, each of which capable of creating and being destroyed by Tangent Universes.

I know this theory will raise a lot of questions, but I think it does does provide a platform for explaining perhaps not time-looping, but time or tangent-cloning, which would explain Dead-Frank going through multiple timelines without breaking much of what the main explanation of this site offers.

June 27th 2015 | 5:10:22

Why did Donnie wake up on top of the mountain on October 1st knowing that the episode doesn't start until October 2nd? I mean I don't wake up every now and then on top of a mountain. So why does a normal teenager wake up on to of a mountain before Frank and the whole PoTT starts?

May 4th 2015 | 20:49:03

My theory was that Donnie was supposed to die on October 2. Over the 28 days, he played out things that never meant to happen. The fact that he was dead meant that he wasn't supposed to be here and that it changed the balance of the laws of nature. The fact that after the 28 days, none of the things that occurred should have occurred. Gretchen was a part of him that was good and kind. Frank was the evil part of himself. There are holes in this as well, but in some areas it does work. I watched it again this weekend and payed more attention to the movie. At the end of the movie it all resets and the laws of nature go back to the way it was meant to be with the characters none the wiser or some having some knowledge a feeling of what they experienced the last 28 days.

jim cunningham
April 23rd 2015 | 15:17:12

i like kids

April 7th 2015 | 20:48:30

my mind is just thinking about this story..
this is a very good website

March 25th 2015 | 11:49:28

Very nice website. It is well put together. I enjoy it.

March 17th 2015 | 16:40:37

I still pull for the repeating loop a bit. Frank says his name was the name of his father, and his father before him, which could allude to him having gone through the events of the film at least two times before. The collapse of a tangential universe would be the restart of the loop, and the primary universe would be in danger as it would not be able to continue past the events of the TU.

January 30th 2015 | 5:23:04

Not quite sure if this has been pointed out before, but there seems to be another flaw with the looping tangent theory:

It states that Frank has travelled in time from the previous TU to the current TU, but that would mean there would have been no Frank in the first TU, which kinda alters the entire storyline of the TU.

Of course, this does assume every TU features the same sequence of events with only minor differences leading to the failure of the Living Receiver, but it just feels like a flaw in the theory.

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Donnie Darko - Living Receiver
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