Ah, right now, I’m nose deep in test prep, so unfortunately I have not ventured down to the cinema in order to find a new movie to watch and review. As far as I know there’s nothing good on anyways. Ergo, retro-review!
One of the most critically-acclaimed sci-fi/horror films of the last twenty years, Donnie Darko is dark, creepy, and cynical about the fake and plastic world – everything that clicks with the majority of sci-fi fans of today and yester-year. But let’s talk about whether it’s appeal is as large as it seems, or if it’s just another movie whose praises are sung for some of the wrong reasons?
Donnie Darko follows the tale of young, angry, misunderstood and maybe a little psychotic teen Donnie, who lives the average American suburban life til Frank, a giant costumed man-rabbit comes to steal Donnie away in the middle of the night, telling him the world will end in less than a month, leaving our titular character to live in a tangent universe where he isn’t crushed by a a airplane engine falling on his room that very night. From there on out, a series of events play out that involve love, telekinesis, worm holes, out-of-touch adults, time travel, death, bullying, and a choice. That’s all I’m giving away, and if you want to read Wikipedia for the full plot synopsis, you’re only ruining it for yourself.
But it comes to question whether this cult classic is really as good as people say it is. Most love it, some think it’s trite art-film crap that is dark just to be edgy and nothing else (their words, not mine). So does Donnie Darko deserve all its praise, or does it just manage to hit a lot of the right button with its fans? Is it possible to love a film that has flaws, or do said flaws overshadow the movie’s intentions?
This movie requires multiple watches and even some research so the viewer can even have a major, not complete, understanding of its core. Honestly, the first time I watched it, I was pretty sure Donnie was just a psychopath with an imaginary six foot creeper-friend in a bunny suit, and everyone was just too afraid of him or not aware of the fact that he needed a straight jacket. The end shows Donnie laughing – laughing like a crazy person finally realizing the truth and then throwing it away. I mean, really, when you see giant monster rabbit do you think “messenger from the future” or do you think “This guy is tripping balls”?
The whole Donnie-escaping-death and creating a tangent universe is a very cool concept, but the original film doesn’t have enough explanation in it to make it really work. Donnie has powers, can process vast amounts of information, and knows things he shouldn’t, all while following commands from his horrifying friend Frank-the-rabbit. There are also “beings from the future” who we never see, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know the existence of until I was doing further research into the movie. They are the ones who messed everything up and created “the Tangent Universe” that the film mostly takes place in – i.e. Donnie was supposed to die, but didn’t, and then the story goes from there. The people from the future manipulate events in order to get Donnie to make all the rights choices and close out the tangent. However, in the film’s original cut, it seemed like what was being said was that the universe itself was making all these events happen. Donnie isn’t psychic, or going totally up the wall, but that time itself is attempting to fix everything. However, it’s the people from the future who give him the powers, who urge to commit all these crimes to set the right gears in motion…which is both awesome and a little stupid.
Donnie is our hero, and in a way, every aspect of his life through the movie is morphed by his perspective and his reactions. For example, almost every adult in the film is an idiot. And that’s not some sort of blanket statement – with the exception of his parents, and two teachers, every adult figure in Donnie’s life is simple, stupid, and pretty incompetent at either their job or at life. The motivational speaker, who later turns out to be in child pornography, is shallow, and fake, spouting nonsense and glossing over any subtext or complexities in emotion and choice. His teacher, who defines the emotional spectrum as only fear and love, is a whiny woman afraid of confrontation and obscenities. The head mom of Donnie’s sister’s dance team is straight up crazy. Even his parents and almost-out-of-college-“cool”-teacher aren’t quite there mentally. And that’s such a teenager thing and I haven’t been in that mode in a long time. Cynicism only really works when what you’re being cynical at something real, not a parody of something and on my rewatch, that’s something that felt overblown and unrealistic for such a dark, otherwise deep film.
However, this movie does understand a good portion of its audience, and can still pull together a wonderful story. Donnie’s struggles, his insanity, his life is both tragic and isolated. We feel for him as he experiences this tangent universe, lashing out angrily at the adults who don’t and won’t try to understand him, and waiting for the inevitable worm hole reopening. There aren’t any major plotholes, and the world Donnie inhabits feels like a whole world, with multiple working parts that move together like clockwork to make the world work like it has to in order push Donnie correctly. No scene is meaningless, and no explanation is exactly what it seems at first. The progression and ending are both unexpected and logical at the same time.
My favorite character in the movie is not actually Donnie, or Gretchen, but Cherita Chen, a fat Asian girl who wears ear-muffs so she doesn’t hear people mocking her, and has a crush on Donnie, as he’s basically the only male who doesn’t torment her. When Donnie tells her that everything will be better soon, after removing her earmuffs, she panics and shouts “Shut up.” Maybe she knows Donnie’s fate, or maybe she’s worried she will now face ridicule at his hands but her reaction is integral. Cherita is also one of the only people who remembers the tangent universe and she removes her earmuffs and then smiles, so she either knows things have changed or that something wonderful will happen. She is integral for Donnie to understand his place and what he has to do and shows how each and every character, be they ally or bully, fits into the puzzle that leads him to his world-altering choice.
The ending is really beautiful – Donnie achieves a sense of understanding and wisdom and is able to accept what fate and universe need him to do, all while resolving his fears and saving the people he loves. And every scene filmed is artfully shot and chosen carefully, much like the aforementioned dialogue, and it shows. Great editing, and a fantastic soundtrack is able to enhance every scene and really drove home the importance and quality this film was able to achieve.
So Donnie Darko has lots of good and a bit of bad and works with a lot of amazing artistry to put on a great film, worthy of the heaps of praise doled on it. And yet…there’s just something about it that makes me hesitate to give it a higher rating. Yes, it’s a great movie, once you get it. I can see where people can get confused or frustrated with it. A movie should challenge you mentally, and even leave you with questions, but after two recent re-watches of the original cut (not the Director’s cut, mind you. I wish I had that version) I didn’t come to some of the right conclusions, let alone answer a good majority of my questions correctly. Is this a beautiful movie? YES. Do you need to see it if you haven’t? YES. Should it be considered a cult classic? YES. Do I think it’s perfect? Sadly, no. But hey, it’s pretty freaking close.
P.S. – I never liked the title. Darko? REALLY? Are there people actually named Darko? It just seems like a really poor choice for a fictional last name.