Firstly this explanation is written assuming that you've seen the film. There are spoilers throughout so it could ruin the enjoyable experience of watching it for the first time.
The film has been carefully made so that there are multiple explanations to what happens. With the release of the director's cut some of the ambiguity has been taken away and the director's true version of the story becomes clearer. The explanation heavily revolves around the book Donnie gets from his teacher, "The Philosophy of Time Travel" written by Roberta Sparrow (Grandma Death). The book is a fictional one but some of the pages were in the film's web site and included into the director's cut version of the movie. You can read those pages here.
PU = Primary Universe (The Universe we exist in now)
TU = Tangent Universe (The parallel Universe that most of the film is set in)
PoTT = Philosophy of Time Travel
The PoTT states that time is usually a stable construct but every now and then the fourth dimension gets corrupted. When this happens it creates a TU which is highly unstable and will only last a few weeks before it collapses in upon itself. There is a danger that when the TU collapses it could cause a black hole capable of destroying the PU as well.
This is what happens in the movie, there is a corruption in time and at midnight on October 2nd a TU is created. The next 28 days are now set in this alternate reality. Shortly after the TU starts Frank wakes Donnie up and lures him out of the house. A few minutes later a huge jet engine falls though the rip in time and lands in Donnie's bedroom.
It is important to remember that the TU is NOT created by the jet engine or Frank waking up Donnie. We are already within the TU when both those events occur. Unfortunately we never find out what caused the TU to begin, it's just an unexplained phenomenon.
According to the PoTT when a TU is created an Artifact will also spontaneously appear. The Artifact is the first sign of evidence that a TU has been created and are always made from metal. In this case the Artifact is a giant jet engine.
Where the Artifact originally comes from is never disclosed. It was most likely created as the TU was being formed. The TU is an exact copy of the PU with one of everything copied into it. During the copying process there was a glitch and two jet engines were formed. The second engine has nowhere to go as it already exists so it's just dumped where the TU began, over Donnie's house.
The Artifact makes the TU unstable; it can't handle having the anomaly of a duplicate object within it. In order for the TU to unravel without forming a black hole it must once again be an exact copy of the PU. By removing one of the duplicate jet engines it will balance out the Universe allowing the TU to collapse safely. The only way to remove the Artifact is to send it through a portal into the PU.
The Living Receiver
When a TU occurs with an Artifact then a Living Receiver is also chosen. This person is chosen seemingly at random and in this case Donnie is the chosen one. As Donnie was at the epicentre of the TU this is most likely why he was selected. The Living Receiver's mission is to guide the Artifact out of the TU.
This person is usually blessed with some supernatural powers during their time in the TU to help them with their quest. Some of these include increased strength, mind control, the ability to conjure fire and water and telekinesis.
- He uses strength to bury the axe into the school water pipe and solid bronze mascot.
- He uses fire to burn Jim Cunningham's house down
- He floods the school and constructs a time portal from water.
- He uses telekinesis to rip the jet engine off the plane to send it through the time portal.
Donnie is not aware of his responsibilities at first though and he doesn't even know he is within a TU. As his journey continues he slowly starts to realise what is going on and what he must do.
Anyone connected to the Living Receiver who dies in the TU becomes Manipulated Dead. These people are very powerful and have the ability to move through time and talk to the Living Receiver through a Fourth Dimensional Construct. They also have some knowledge of the impending disaster and help guide the chosen one.
Frank is killed in the TU and therefore becomes one of the Manipulated Dead. He travels back in time and helps Donnie with his quest to return the Artifact. The first thing he must do is save Donnie by waking him up before he gets squashed by the jet engine. He is like a reverse ghost who appears before he was killed. Gretchen is also Manipulated Dead but she doesn't appear to Donnie in the same way as it might be to confusing for him.
All the people connected to the Living Receiver are the Manipulated Living and these people will subconsciously help guide the Living receiver. They will behave in the exact perfect way necessary to push Donnie toward his eventual destiny. Nearly every event in the film has a specific purpose designed to aid Donnie to save the Universe.
There is a driving force behind the Manipulated's behaviour... although we never find out what it is for sure. God is one of the most popular ideas mooted, the film does use religion at many points. The story uses lots of religious symbols and often points to the idea that you follow God's channel to decide your own fate. This guiding force is moving all the Manipulated characters around like pieces on a chessboard, making a sequence of events that will lead to Donnie's success. The Universe is in grave danger and this guiding force has stepped in to help save it.
The Ensurance Trap
The PoTT states that all the Manipulated are trying to lure the Living Receiver into a trap so has no choice but to send the Artifact out of the TU into the PU. The PoTT calls this the Ensurance Trap (old English) . This is effectively the role all the Manipulated play, they are trying to save themselves by guiding Donnie to complete his mission. If Donnie fails they die as well.
Frank tells Donnie to flood the school which in turn leads to Donnie walking Gretchen home and him then asking her to be his girlfriend. This event is not just coincidence; it's specifically put in place as part of the trap.
Gretchen plays a crucial role in the trap, remember Donnie only meets and falls in love with her within the TU. He is given someone to love then she dies. He's so upset at Frank for killing Gretchen he shoots him dead. This has now created Manipulated Dead Frank, the person guiding him to do these things. He must create Manipulated Dead Frank in order to be saved himself in the beginning.
The manipulated have now successfully set the trap. Donnie was saved from death and is now in a desperate situation. His girlfriend is dead and he's a killer on the run. He knows what his purpose is now and only has one way out even though it will ultimately end his own life. Sending the engine through a portal will erase the last 28 days from history and time will return to October 2nd... back to when Gretchen was still alive.
The End of the Film
At the end of the film we see a vortex appear over Donnie's house. It's the beginning of the TU collapse and is centred over where it began. Donnie is aware of what he must do now so he drives up the mountain for a better vantage point. The plane with the same jet engine has been manipulated to fly overhead at this exact time. Donnie rips the engine off using telekinesis, constructs a time portal from water and guides the engine through it.
We now see parts of the last 28 days rewinding as the TU starts to unravel. The TU has collapsed safely and the PU that was on pause starts back up from when it stopped. We are now back in reality on October 2nd, the last 28 days never happened. Donnie wakes up in his bed laughing after dreaming some of the events within the TU. He then goes back to sleep seemingly content with life now. The experience has seemingly brought him closer to God and he is no longer afraid to die. The jet engine Donnie sent through the time portal now falls into his bedroom killing him.
Even though the last 28 days never actually happened some of the Manipulated will be haunted in their dreams by their experiences within the TU.
There are bits of evidence to prove this. Frank touching his eye in the final montage and Gretchen waving to Donnie's mum proves that some of the characters have some knowledge of what happened within the lost world.
We see Jim Cunningham crying in the montage as he wakes up... clearly disgusted with himself. Ten days later he clears out his child pornography dungeon and shoots himself on the 14th hole of the golf course... his dirty secret is never revealed.
Many people assume Donnie has to die otherwise the TU would start over again. From a scientific point of view Donnie's death is not relevant at all , the corruption is already fixed before he dies and if he got up and avoided death then nothing would change. The PoTT tells us of previous Receiver's who died after the Artifact was returned but we only hear about them because their death defies logic. Any Receiver's who escaped death would go completely unnoticed.
It's almost certain Roberta Sparrow was a Living Receiver in a previous TU and that is how she came to write the PoTT. She survived her experience proving that the Receiver doesn't always have to die.
This film does blend science and religion together so his death may emphasise him as a saviour and his belief in God. In death Donnie's role as the Living Receiver seems even greater than before.
Other common questions concern the Artifact Donnie sends through the portal at the end of the movie. Many people ask why the PU is not in danger now it has a duplicate object with it. It seems to be the case that the issue of duplicate objects is only a concern once the Universe they're within starts going through the collapsing process. The PU is a stable linear time-line that never goes through a collapsing process so is therefore never in any danger from duplicate objects.
As stated above the Arrtifact is not the cause of the TU, it's just a by-product of it. This is why there is no danger of another TU starting up once Donnie sends his Artifact through the portal at the end of the movie.
- You can read more about some of the contentious parts of the movie by clicking here
- You can compare with some of the alternative explanations by clicking here
I enjoyed the movie and wasn't confused until the last 15 minutes when I realized I had no idea what was going on. Thanks very much for the explanation - I never would have gotten ANY of that from watching the movie!
I don't think Donnie knows at any point he is actually avoiding the collapse of the TU, I think he's just trying to stop the end of the world as Frank told him that was going to happen in 28 days.
I mean, the issue here is, in addition that he is the receiver and all that stuff, he is also quite insane, so we don't ever know if everything is real or just hallucinations. I didn't know anything about his telekinesis or his ability to construct portals with waters until I read this, at the end of the movie when he is looking at the "storm" we never get to know that he used telekinesis as he is only watching it as expecting something to happen (which I understood it was an accident on the plane)
And, if he knew that he was reloading the Universe, I think he would know a fucking plane engine was going to hit him and he would ran out of the house so he could meet again Gretchen. He's just insane.
Thank you. About a year ago I happened upon the Wikipedia page, and the description made 0 sense to me. Watching the movie, I remembered little bits and pieces of the synopsis, so I think I grasped a little bit more of the movie.
But I just watched it for the first time, and this explanation makes SO MUCH sense. Thank you. So much. apsdoifjaposid. I feel like I truly understand life now.
And James the Rabbit's comment also makes some sense.
This movie is AIDS
The only problem I have with this explanation is the end. I've always felt that Donnie wakes up, laughing because he did it:he fixed the universe. But he wasn't tryinto fix it, he didn't care, he just wanted to save Gretchen. He line "when the world ends, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to." isn't about his going to an afterlife, its borne out of an almost self-loathing, he caused all the problems, and when he undid the past, he fixed all that. He doesn't flood the school, drew Barrymore doesn't get fired, if he didn't burn down Swayze's house, his mom wouldn't have had to be on the plane, so there wouldn't have been a Halloween party, frank wouldn't have gone to get beer, wouldn't have run over grethen and gotten killed. I guess blame here is a pointless concept, but regardless of blame, he knows that he has to go back. He wakes up, content with himself having saved his love and will not be dying alone. The dark tragedy of it is that, even though he died in love, content, Gretchen has no idea who he is. Its almost cruel.
Your a genius. Your explanation was so coherent that even though the story was foreign in concept to myself, that it was very clear to me. I thought the movie was horrifying personally. It made me sick to my stomach to watch it. Having read your explanation I will have to watch it again. I really admired your ability to clarify in a non-complex manner.
But the weld did end. Bush won the election.
the falling engine at the beginning of the film, comes from the wormhole from the future TU, when his mom and sisters were flying back home and that engine must return donnie from the PU to TU in 28 days..u see, artifacts from another parallel universe, cannot remain in another universe, in thiw case in our universe, cos they will make a conflict, a collusion between them and a final distruction...as for the rest plot of the film, it has two views..1. all were a dream 2. donnie really was the hero of an event that cant be explained in logical terms... as for the final scene of DD death, if we choose the second view, donnie returnw home and died , 1. not knowing he will be crushed by the engine or 2. knowing it and accepted it after realising that this is needed to save other people lives and realising finally, that he is not alone in a universe full of surprises and life everywhere....anyway, all these are opinions and we dont know what the director had in mind, maybe he just did the film for fun
Thank you so much for the explanation! I sort of understood the film anyway, but this is perfect, as it gives extra clarity
my brain hurts trying to understand it
this explanation just don't really makes any sense to me...
if we only look at the PU, the jet engine that kills donnie is still an artifact since it should come from a plane that in the PU is definitely not yet crashed because not even supposed to be flying as it wasn't at the beginning of the movie...
i really think all these explanation are bullshit and what the director wanted to say was either something totally different or just NOTHING.
in my opinion this movie has no sense. cheers.
so when frank (rabbit) says 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes 12 secounds that is when the world is going to end " frank means that is exactly the time TU world is going to end and thats when PU starts back up ........i get it now
how comes that frank is a real person? The whole movie he was the voice of Donnie , he led Donnie to Grandma's death place how can be real ?
None of this explains why Donnie chose to die
i believe that the awnser is simple. . . Avery is a jew
I have just watched this movie for the tenth time. I wear a donnie darko pin on my jacket.. I only really got this movie havin read this site ! Its still a great movie
I think you people are forgetting the very beginning where Donnie wakes up in the middle of the road as if he already had one of those dreams making me believe that's when the TU was created making what we see the TU up until the very end.
what about the letter that has written by donnie to grandma death ?
I think it explain why grandma death allways chek her mailbox and as donnie request to "show the answer in my dream" Iit explain why donnie laughs at the end of the film
If the manipulated frank formed just after he was shot and back in parallel universe to save donnie, isnt that started a loop of events which will endlessly continue? Because even if everything gets ok in the end when donnie manage to send the engine back in PU we still don't know where it came from and what causes the engine to fell.