Darko and the Light
A disturbed student walks into the light.
::: Annie Frisbie
I n Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a time traveler steps off the prescribed path and crushes a butterfly. He returns to the future to find that everything has changed. This is the biggest conundrum in the conception of time travel, and perhaps renders time travel physically possible (at least according to Stephen Hawking) but metaphysically impossible.
Until Donnie Darko, films dealing with time travel have limited themselves to being just cool exercises in the “what if?” Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1996) is perhaps the most elaborate and successful movie mind-fuck, but its final revelation provides no answers to the time travel conundrum. The film remains at the level of example—if time travel is like this, then this is what would happen. It doesn’t explain why and its characters remain caught in a loop, destined to repeat themselves forever. Bruce Willis’s character will always watch himself die.
Donnie Darko follows a boy of superior intelligence whose emotional problems propel him on a very strange trajectory through a tangent universe. Donnie’s journey begins when he dreams about a rabbit telling him to leave the house. He follows the rabbit, and escapes being killed by a falling airplane part of unknown origin. But the rabbit tells him that the world is going to end in twenty-eight days. Donnie’s been given life and death at once.
Donnie Darko boldly attempts not only to transcend the time travel conundrum, but to link it explicitly to the biggest question of all: Does everyone die alone?
If God exists, he must by extension have a plan for the universe, a path for everyone to follow. If we are following a path that God knows from start to finish, then we should be able to jump to any point on that path because it already and always exists. Donnie is able to see these paths as Abyss-like arrows emanating from people’s chests. He tries to ask his science teacher what it all means, but his teacher can’t answer—he’ll lose his job. He can’t tell Donnie how to travel in time because it means telling Donnie that there is a sovereign God who created time and who oversees its unfolding.
Donnie’s bible is The Philosophy of Time Travel, a book written by Darko character Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. Grandma Death. Sparrows are the birds most commonly associated with God’s providence. In the Bible, Jesus asks that we “consider the birds” to understand how God will take care of us. Shakespeare riffs on these words as Hamlet, confronted with his own mortality and understanding that he must take action, says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow . . . The readiness is all.” But the dark side of God’s providence is death. Hamlet understood this—the readiness of which he speaks is the readiness to die. Throughout Jesus’ teachings, the idea is that true devotion to God will remove the fear of death because of the trust that God is sovereign and he will provide, even after death. As the existential optimist Job says, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.”
So why, then, does Roberta Sparrow say to Donnie, “Every living thing dies alone”? This question throws Catholic schoolboy Donnie into a tailspin. He thinks that the world is going to end and he’s going to die and be alone and there’s nothing he can do about it. Even as he falls in love with Gretchen and comes to know the depth of his mother’s love for him, Donnie watches his world spiral out of control. He finds destruction of his own making and destruction that is unavoidable. He can’t make heads or tails of any of it and comes to find that the world is a terrifying, dark place even as there are pockets of goodness.
Donnie is learning the meaning of what the biblical writer John calls “the now and the not yet.” The Christian believer lives in the paradox of knowing that salvation (from the eternal consequences of sin) has already arrived and that salvation (from the sorrow of living in a fallen world) is still to come. The conflict will be resolved only when the believer sees Christ face to face—that is, on the believer’s mortal death. Chiefly loving the “now” will lead the Christian to try to turn this world into heaven, to seek happiness in the temporal. Living solely for the “not yet” sends the believer into exile, devoid of intimacy with God’s much-loved children, dreaming only of an escape hatch. Choosing to (try to) love both creates a holy neurosis that might be what Paul meant when he said, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Or what Jesus did when he laid down his life for his friends.
As the clock runs out, Donnie makes love with Gretchen and then goes to Roberta Sparrow’s. He’s found love, and now he needs answers. If everyone dies alone, then it doesn’t matter that he loves Gretchen. What he finds is death, destruction, sorrow, and despair. The complete darkness of the fallen world is laid bare before him, and Roberta Sparrow is nowhere to be found. And then the sky starts to fall.
Donnie watches the clouds gather above his house, and then scenes from the movie run in reverse. Donnie is back in his bed on the night of his death. He laughs. He should laugh: he has time traveled, and now he will die—but Gretchen won’t be murdered. His family will weep but the world won’t come to an end at the close of twenty-eight days. He’s sacrificed himself to prove that God exists, that God is indeed sovereign over everything—and if God exists then no one dies alone, it is safe to die, and the world doesn’t have to come to an end. His death does change the future, profoundly, but he laughs because he’s learned that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person, not by half.