Wednesday, August 03, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #28: DONNIE DARKO
Like most children of the 80s, I grew up fascinated by the idea of time travel. I'm not sure if I was introduced to the concept when my neighbor gave me a scene-by-scene description of THE TERMINATOR (which I wrote about last week) or when I saw BACK TO THE FUTURE. Whatever the case, it was years before I learned that these stories had antecedents, and there was whole subgenre of time-travel narratives. BACK TO THE FUTURE owes quite a bit to H.G. Wells' breakthrough novel THE TIME MACHINE (first published in 1895), and THE TERMINATOR bears striking similarities to Harlan Ellison’s short story “Soldier." Ellison hated both movies. In a January 1986 movie review, he summed up his thoughts on BACK TO THE FUTURE as follows:
With such Wells of invention inherent in even the shallowest of time travel stories, with such fecundity of imagination born into the basic concept, it would seem impossible for a filmmaker ladling up riches from that genre to produce a movie anything less than fascinating. Not even forty-five years should run it dry, right? If one thinks so, one has not seen BACK TO THE FUTURE (Universal), a celluloid thing as trivial as a Twinkie and, like so much of the recent Steven Spielberg-presented product, equally as saccharine.
Ellison was later ridiculed by Forrest Ackerman as the only person on earth who was callous enough to dislike BACK TO THE FUTURE, but of course there are some solid reasons to criticize the film. What's most surprising about Ellison's rant is that it doesn't even bother to point out how un-scientific the film is. For that criticism, you can check out physicist Brian Greene’s 2004 book THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: SPACE, TIME AND THE TEXTURE OF REALITY (pp. 452 – 458 of the paperback edition). Greene dissects the plot of the movie and concludes that Michael J. Fox’s dilemma about being “erased from existence” is negligible: “If you time-travel to the past, you can’t change it anymore than you can change the value of pi.” I understand Ellison’s contempt for the sentimentality of Steven Spielberg movies and I admire Greene’s expert analysis of the science behind the film, but I still love BACK TO THE FUTURE.
So, apparently, does filmmaker Richard Kelly - who, roughly a decade later, made DONNIE DARKO - a more psychologically complex time travel film for the generation that grew up on BACK TO THE FUTURE. A fellow blogger (I won’t name any names) recently included the film on his list of MOST OVERRATED HORROR MOVIES, saying, “This is an amusing picture by a writer/ director who read Stephen Hawking and thought he understood it… [It’s] the kind of movie people like to say they love because it makes them sound really smart.” This is far from a Harlan Ellison-style attack (in all fairness, the blogger is criticizing the audience more than he’s criticizing the film), but it nevertheless got me thinking: Is DONNIE DARKO actually a “smarter” movie about time-travel?
In his book THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS, Greene sets up the scientific foundations for the theory of time travel as follows:
To accept special and general relativity is to abandon Newtonian absolute space and absolute time. While it’s not easy, you can train your mind to do this. Whenever you move around, imagine your NOW shifting away from the NOWS experienced by all others not moving with you. While you are driving along a highway, imagine your watch ticking away at a different rate compared with timepieces in the homes you are speeding past. While you are gazing out from a mountaintop, imagine that because of the warping of spacetime, time passes more quickly for you than for those subject to stronger gravity on the ground below. I say ‘imagine this’ because in ordinary circumstances such as these, the effects of relativity are so tiny that they go completely unnoticed. Everyday experience thus fails to reveal how the universe really works, and that’s why a hundred years after Einstein, almost no one, not even professional physicists, feels relativity in their bones…
As if building on this very passage, DONNIE DARKO begins with a scene in which the title character wakes up on a peaceful mountaintop, where life is slowed down to a crawl. The opening credits roll as he bikes home, and the filmmaker alternately speeds up and slows down the footage of him returning to his family and resuming his daily life. (Echo and the Bunnymen, meanwhile, rhapsodize about fate on the soundtrack.)
When the narrative proper begins, we learn that Donnie is medicated for “emotional problems” that basically stem from the loss of time. He’s experiencing routine blackouts at night. He sleepwalks and, in the process, does things that he can’t control or account for. As a result, Donnie is filled with dread about “forces in the world” that he can’t predict or explain. To him the world is a mystery, and the only way he can explain the mystery is by applying the concept of time-travel. He becomes convinced that he has super powers that allow him to create wormholes (hypothetical shortcuts through space and time). Ultimately, he uses this super power to re-write the past.
Does the storyline hold up to scientific scrunity? Certainly there's more science in DONNIE DARKO than there is in BACK TO THE FUTURE... IF we assume that, in the end, Donnie does not re-write the past but rather becomes aware of a parallel alternate universe. (This is exactly why I believe that the director’s cut, which gets more bogged down in the science of the science fiction, is a weaker version of the film than the theatrical cut.)
The big “what if” in the story is Donnie’s super-power. Greene says that time-travel would require technology far in advance of what we have now. The major obstacles to the reality of time travel are (1) opening a wormhole, (2) creating a time machine that can travel at nearly the speed of light, (3) protecting the human body from the damage that would be caused by traveling at the speed of light.
Greene theorizes on how a wormhole might be produced: “We know that space responds to the distribution of matter and energy, so with sufficient control over matter and energy, we might cause a region of space to spawn a wormhole…” Richard Kelley proposes that Donnie can conjure this power at will. Based on the "many worlds theory" of parallel universes, Donnie can use this power to connect with an alternate reality where he has control over his own fate.
Admittedly it's a pretty wild idea... but no wilder than Stephen King's Carrie or David Cronenberg's Scanners, which also have their basis in unproven science. Like those films, DONNIE DARKO shouldn't have to stand up to careful scientific scrunity because the narrative is not simply about the scientific ideas. Ultimately, the film is NOT really about time-travel (or, at least, time travel as we understand it based on years of time-travel fiction), but about one character's sense of reality. It's a coming-of-age film about someone who is beginning to feel relativity in his bones. The most revealing aspects of the film are Donnie’s “emotional problems”:
First of all, he’s hearing voices – a classic symptom of schizophrenia. And what is schizophrenia if not a psychological equivalent of experiencing parallel universes? The voices make him feel, at times, like he’s possessed… He’s not quite Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST, but oftentimes he’s not himself. In this particular universe, sometimes he’s God. At first, he has no power – he can’t accept that he is the source of this new power, so he fearfully denies it. Later he has too much power (he’s concerned about moving outside of “God’s channel”), and he’s reluctant to take control and create a new reality... For that, he needs some kind of reassurance that he is not "evil."
Donnie's biggest fear is of dying alone, and the only thing that counterbalances his descent into madness is falling in love. The final message of the film is that only through love (and the self-sacrifice that comes from it) can he satisfactorily answer the crushing question about whether the world would be a better place if he weren't part of it. Donnie’s dilemma is actually pretty basic coming-of-age stuff. In order to feel alive, he has to create or destroy… and he’s trying to figure out what his own true nature is: creator or destroyer? It takes him most of the movie to recognize that this choice hasn’t already been made for him. It’s his choice to make, and his manipulation of time is just a gimmick in a heady parable about becoming a responsible human being. Ultimately, what he's learning is how to deal with his own creative/destructive potential.
As the film suggests, by having Donnie attack Jim Cunningham's simplistic philosophy (which reduces life to two basic emotions: LOVE and FEAR), that's not an easy road to travel. Understanding and choosing between creation and destruction, particularly when you're young, engages "the whole spectrum of human emotions." Sometimes it's not even entirely clear which one you've chosen... as the final sequence in the film illustrates.
I'm not sure how conscious Richard Kelly was of all this when he made DONNIE DARKO. Maybe, instead of working out all of the details in a thoroughly scientific manner, he simply felt this story his bones. Whatever the case, I think the results speak for themselves... Many viewers seem to feel this movie in their bones. DONNIE DARKO resonates, I think, not because of the science fiction elements but because of the coming-of-age story that’s hiding behind the brain-busting idea of time travel. Donnie’s actions at the end of the film leave me thinking not so much about the theory of parallel universes, but about what it would feel like to KNOW that parallel universes exist.
If each of us does in fact exist in “many worlds” beyond space and time, then all of those worlds (and all of the decisions and actions that distinguish them from each other) matter. The mere possibility fills me with a profound sense of both freedom and responsibility.
Labels: Donnie Darko