How Donnie Darko's Time Travel Works

Donnie Darko Jake Gyllenhaal holds an axe

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Greetings once again, fellow time travelers! No matter what corner of the continuum you come from, it’s nice to rejoin you all to talk about going from here to there in the then and now. Last week, we had one hell of a ride chronicling that very special corner of the MCU adjacent adventures of X-Men: Days of Future Past, and boy is my mind still recovering. My healing abilities aren’t as powerful as Wolverine’s, so it might be time to take things a little easy this week. Which is a good thing, as Donnie Darko’s tragic time travel tale is just waiting, like a spectre in a stupid rabbit suit staring back in the mirror.

Before we take off for this 1988 parable of time travel and small town politics, I’d like to lay down the usual business. While our commitment to Sparkle Motion might be questionable at best, we here at CinemaBlend love to make our way through the rules and pitfalls that come with time travel. So if you’re curious what other adventures we’ve tackled in the field, head over to our time travel archives and bend your mind with some of our finest flings. With that out of the way, let’s head back to a time when Michael Dukakis was a household name, motivational speakers were on the rise, and Seth Rogen was a creepy ne’er-do-well; all thanks to writer/director Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko.

Donnie Darko the infamous timestamp written on his arm

The Time Travel in Donnie Darko

Growing up is never easy, but living in Middlesex, Virginia in 1988 sure doesn’t make things any better. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is about to learn that the hard way, as he’s accidentally stumbled into a chain of events that will define his community. And it all centers around him, and a batch of unique powers he’s about to acquire.

Who's Time Traveling

It’s not who, but rather what is traveling through time, in the events of Donnie Darko, as a jet engine that dislodges from a plane during the last act travels through a portal that Donnie manipulates.

From When To When

That jet engine is sent back in time 28 days, 06 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, from October 30th, 1988 to October 2nd, 1988.

The Purpose Of Its Trip

There is a lot of additional context and mythology built into Donnie Darko’s time travel methodology when digging into the content of the 2004 Director’s Cut. We don’t know it until the end, and by extension, the release of the Director’s Cut, but we’ve witnessed Donnie crossover into an unstable “tangent universe” that needs to be changed. Otherwise, a black hole will form that can wipe out the entire known universe, ending the world… in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.

Donnie Darko Noah Wyle explains time travel

How Time Travel Happens In Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko has two different levels of explanation when it comes to how time travel works in its world. The simpler version, presented in the theatrical cut, is that there’s an anomaly that allows the jet engine to drop from its place in time on October 30th, through a wormhole leading back to October 2nd. But there’s still a hint as to what Richard Kelly meant to do in his fully realized version of the film, as a scene between Donnie and his science teacher, Professor Kenneth Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), hints at the origins of said anomaly as follows:

A wormhole with an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Which is, theoretically, a wormhole in space, controlled by man.

In Donnie Darko’s theatrical cut, it all feels like it was destined to happen, almost as if it was a singular time loop that saw Donnie peer into the future, before choosing to sacrifice himself for the sake of Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone.) His girlfriend in the tangent universe, Gretchen unfortunately dies in an accident where she’s run over by a car, driven by Frank (James Duval), the man in the bunny suit who’s been nudging Donnie along the path of discovering the time manipulation at work. However, the Director’s Cut mythology lays this out a little clearer.

Through The Philosophy of Time Travel, the book written by enigmatic recluse/”Grandma Death” Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland), a complex mythology is unraveled that details how Donnie was destined to die. Again, the version of Donnie Darko we see is technically from an alternate “primary” universe. In this version of the world, Donnie is imbued with powers that help him do what must be done in order to save the universe.

Donnie Darko Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone at the movies with Frank

Can History Be Changed As A Result Of Time Travel In Donnie Darko?

History can definitely be changed in Donnie Darko, and that’s the entire point of the powers that have been given to Donnie. As he exists in this tangent universe, Mr. Darko is given special powers, which include abilities that let him see the future, as well as grant him telekinetic powers. All of which allow him to realize that he has to die, in order to ensure the primary universe doesn’t come to harm.

We watch the tangent version of events unfold in real time, from the night that Donnie is supposed to die (October 2nd) through to the day the world is supposed to end (October 30th.) So what we’re seeing is another classic example of overwriting the alternate chain of events, which in turn makes Donnie Darko feel like one big time loop between those two dates. The connecting force being the Einstein-Rosen Bridge wormhole that allows the jet engine to crash into Donnie’s bedroom; which presumably drops into his bedroom thanks to his telekinetic powers dislodging the engine in the first place.

Donnie Darko Jake Gyllenhaal stabs the mirror

What Are The Consequences Of Time Travel In Donnie Darko?

From what we see at the end of Donnie Darko, the main consequence of this time travel exercise is that Donnie’s death is predetermined. Were he to survive the event, Darko would not only cause a bunch of mischief at the urging of Frank, he’d eventually lose Gretchen to the fatal accident that sees her run over by a random Trans Am. By changing his fate, Donnie puts the world back on its proper course. Though the tangent universe version of events isn’t merely known to Donnie, who laughs as he’s about to meet his doom.

A montage showing various figures he’d interacted with throughout his tangent adventure, such as Professor Monnitoff, religious zealot/teacher Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant,) and motivational speaker/secret pedophile Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), indicates that the moment Donnie dies, it’s felt by prominent figures in that other timeline. Even Frank is seen, without the injuries sustained by Donnie’s murder in the tangent universe, touching the part of his face that would have been shot.

While Donnie Darko saves his universe from a timeline of chaos and unraveled secrets, those events are still felt in some way. In the best example, we see Gretchen wave at Donnie’s mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell), the morning after the jet engine crashes. The two share an unspoken sense of familiarity, despite never having met, and it ends the film on a bittersweet, yet abrupt, note.

Donnie Darko Jake Gyllenhaal looks out at the forming portal

It’s A Very Very Mad World

Donnie Darko’s time travel isn’t very complicated, even when you take into account the Director’s Cut mythology that’s layered on top of it. Donnie sacrifices himself to save the world, and for the most part, no one remembers the reasons why. It’s not the happiest story we’ve covered in our time travel exercises, but it’s still a vital one that carries quite a bit of pop culture relevance. Though I can promise you, our next adventure will be a lot more of a blockbuster.

Before we reveal the next lesson in our series of temporal studies, I’d like to remind you all that you should feel free to email us with any other time travel adventures you’d like to see highlighted. We’re always on the lookout for a new and exciting story that lets us examine just how it happens, and why it’s so spectacular to behold. Which is something that our next examination into here and there in the then and now will cover quite greatly.

From the world of late author Michael Crichton, a master of technothriller suspense and excitement, comes a time travel tale that skirts the boundaries of what exactly constitutes as “time travel.” Brush up on your french, and make sure to keep your markers where you can find them, as Timeline makes its way into the CinemaBlend labs for our next dissection! And if you want to see the movie for yourself, it’s currently available on HBO Max for your streaming pleasure. If you’re not a subscriber already, you can sign up for a 7-day free trial today, and see what the fuss is all about. Until our paths cross again, we’ll see you next time, in the same place!

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.