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Review of Time Travel: Movies (Part 2 of 2)

The Time Machine, written by David Duncan from the novel by H.G. Wells, directed by George Pal, 1960, 100 min.

The Time Machine, written by John Logan from the earlier screenplay by David Duncan and the novel by H.G. Wells, directed by Simon Wells, 2002, 95 min.

Time travel movies are a dime a dozen. Every year it seems that at least two major releases (and many more obscure, direct-to-video, and TV projects) use time travel as the major plot device. Most of these are films not commonly thought of as science fiction, some good, like Groundhog Day, others not so good, like Black Knight. Many were inspired by the success of Back to the Future in the 80s (this sub-subgenre included such bottom-of-the-barrel projects like Millennium, Highlander, and Timerider). Sometimes the time travel is used as an excuse for action movie heroics, like the popular Terminator series, but more commonly, time travel is the basis for comedies. Surprisingly, this seems to work more often than might be expected. Consider the aforementioned Groundhog Day and Back to the Future, along with Woody Allen's gagfest Sleeper, as well as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Time Bandits. The popularity of the time travel movie continues: just this year, two big budget time travel movies have come out, Terminator 3 earlier this summer and Timeline at time of writing. And coming soon (subject to the vagaries of the entertainment industry as such projects always are), many similar movies, such as an adaptation of Bradburyís famous story ďA Sound of ThunderĒ due out summer 2004.

Why this popularity? Why would time travel be one of the most commonly used science fiction tropes in Hollywood, surpassing alien invasion? For one, the visual possibilities are hard to resist, with juxtapositions that otherwise wouldnít happen. Killer robots from the future, your parents as teenagers, the Enterprise in 1980s San Francisco, and so forth. Correspondingly, time travel allows a modern narrator to anchor a story in a way that doesn't happen in a straight-up period film or a tale of the future. Another big reason for time travel's enduring popularity is that at least two storylines virtually write themselves, the fish out of water and the mission to fix a mistake (combined, as it happens, in Back to the Future). Also, time travel stories traffic heavily in nostalgia or regret, and the coinciding impulses to revisit or change things in our past. Some of the more mainstream efforts have gone this route, like Peggy Sue Got Married and Disney's The Kid. As this column will show, time travel and the movies have had quite a successful and interesting relationship. Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crud) still applies, naturally, but the 10% is well worth seeking out.

In my previous column on time travel books, I wrote about The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and its pivotal effect on science fiction. Itís fitting that there are two adaptations of the book, but unfortunately both are only mediocre. The Time Machine was first made in 1960, directed by George Pal after involvement with a long series of successful films; many directors and special effects technicians working today cite Pal, along with Ray Harryhausen, as key inspirations. Last year the book was remade into a movie by a team that, after some shuffling, was directed by Wellsí great-grandson, Simon Wells. Both movies have flaws that are symptomatic of their times.

In a relatively solid adaptation, The Time Machine of 1960 takes Cold War fears as the thematic backbone, and does so effectively. A Victorian-era scientist named George has gathered some friends together to show them his new invention, a time machine. He travels into the future only to find that the twentieth century has two world wars in its first half, and then, even more horrifyingly, a nuclear holocaust has already happened by the 1960s. These scenes are reminiscent of Things to Come, a 1930s adaptation of a Wells story that posited a second world war that would last into the 1970s. The sheer force of the truth hits home in both cases. Much further in the future, George and his time machine arrive in a bucolic, pastoral society, with a people known as the Eloi. But all is not as it seems, and one of the first signs is that air raid sirens dominate the lives of the Eloi. When George finds out about the Morlocks, the darker half of the society of the future, underground dwellers who eat the Eloi, he faces a difficult decision. The movie becomes a decently constructed vignette about the line between pacifism and self-defence. Not surprisingly, this movie version jettisons the superbly melancholy ending as originally written by Wells -- the time traveller alone on a dead beach at the end of the world. Frankly, I donít think any filmmaker could do the ending justice, but the book can almost support this change, not like putting a happy ending on 1984 or similar nonsense.

This is not to say that I enjoyed the movie myself. Most reviews or commentary on the 1960 version relate some kind of personal story about watching the movie as a young viewer and being enormously impressed. I watched the film for the first time as an adult and I was braced and completely ready for cheesy special effects and dull acting. These were present of course, but, as even a casual glance through the Mystery Science Theater 3000 catalogue indicates, movies from this era can display near-infinite badness. Thus fortified, I did find the movie reasonably competent on this level, and the time machine itself is a marvel of design (it has become a bit of fabled lore in the history of movie props since it went missing and was mysteriously found much later). Unfortunately, this was all overshadowed: the movie is shockingly sexist, beginning to end. I understand that this was de rigueur for the time period, and that a modern audience should have the intellectual decency to apply at least some filters of historical awareness to judgments of past works. I also understand the movie uses a female Eloi to stand in for the overall devolution of a strain of humanity at that point in the future. But this devolved Eloi character is the only female onscreen, and most of her comments are the worst stereotypes of the dumb blonde, asking questions about the past like ďWould I be pretty?Ē or ďHow do they wear their hair?Ē George makes a number of inexcusable comments about her, as well as about a mannequin of all things. The time traveller is condescending towards the Eloi in the book, but most of the worst excesses have been added here.

By this measure, itís remarkable that the 2002 version almost makes the 1960 version look good. Who can complain about cheesy special effects in old sf movies, when more recent movies have no idea what to actually do with their big budgets and fancy computerized effects? The Time Machine of 2002 is a movie in wild disarray, putting forth a version of Wellsí story that doesnít work. The characters here are so bland and underwritten that they could only hope to be offensive or sexist. Worst of all, the movie is not even luridly bad, so thereís no point rewatching it for the unintentional humour.

The 2002 adaptation of Wellsí material suffers from a disconnect that the 1960 version simply doesnít have. This time around, the time traveller is trying to rescue his fiancée from death; we see several attempts at the beginning of the movie, none of which go well. The entire Eloi/Morlock episode becomes an accident, as he is stranded there while on a completely different mission. Yes, he wants to get back to his own time and to his loved one, but this change removes the thematic consistency. For the purposes of this new construction, the Eloi/Morlock episode could have been replaced with any randomly chosen obstacle, whereas in Wellsí story, the societal evolution represented by the Eloi/Morlock split was the precise point. In the book, the time traveller was a scientist going on his mission for purely rational reasons; neither movie version can leave this alone, but the changes work in one case and not the other.

Also, while Wellsí time machine story didnít address the key point of time travel, the mutability of time, and the 1960 version also skips over this, the 2002 version uses it as the hinge of the story. But inconsistently. Can the time traveller save the life of his loved one? He fails several times, but the movie doesnít make its conceptual basis clear, so the story flounders. That said, few movies take any stance except that the past and future are mutable. Back to the Future and Star Trek IV both seem to fall into this category, 12 Monkeys is one of only a few movies I can think of that use an immutable timeline, and in the case of Donnie Darko, itís not clear that thereís any time travel at all (reviews of all four movies following).

DVD Notes: The 1960 version of The Time Machine was recently released on DVD with extensive visual restoration. The movie looks good! Also included is a 50 minute documentary Time Machine: The Journey Back with Rod Taylor; Taylor also creates an epilogue with Alan Young that follows the story 30 years later. Odd.

The 2002 version was filmed in the era of DVD, so no need of restoration. It comes with two commentary tracks, some making-of material, featurettes and trailers. A pretty package, but empty.

Back to the Future, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, directed by Robert Zemeckis, 1985, 110 min.

Back to the Future, a fun, competent movie that actually pays attention to its ideas of time travel, has also become a cultural artifact of the 80s. This movie bases its structure on going back in time, and so clearly evokes a time two decades in the past now that it has almost become a time travel device of its own. Many other, very bad movies bring the 80s to mind, and thankfully, Back to the Future is a clever, hilarious movie that succeeds in the presence or absence of the nostalgia factor. Zemeckisí direction seems casual and rambly, but the movie is actually tightly structured and rewards repeated viewings with attention to detail. A great cast, some nifty visuals, a well-paced story, it all adds up to a movie to remember.

Marty McFly is an ordinary teenager, a bit rebellious so he has trouble with some of the authority figures at high school. He also has a supremely weird family, with a father who is under the thumb of a colleague named Biff, a mother who doesnít seem in love with her husband anymore but tells stories about how the two of them met, and some very repressed siblings. Fortunately for Martyís sanity, he is a good friend with a local mad scientist named Doc. One night Doc asks Marty for some help documenting his new experiment: a time travel device installed in a De Lorean. After one successful test, in which Docís dog Einstein gets sent one minute into the future, Doc is ecstatic, but the source of power for the device, plutonium, leads to some problems. It seems that Doc stole the material from some Libyans, and the Libyans are now very angry.

Doc gets shot, and the next thing Marty knows, heís in the De Lorean, trying to get away. The magic number is 88 mph, and once that has been exceeded, Marty is sent to a different temporal destination in a blaze of rubber and flame. Since Doc happened to type in a date in the 1950s into the carís computer, and since there was no time to pack extra plutonium, Marty soon finds out that he is stranded in the past. How can he get back? Who can he turn to for help? Why, Doc, of course. But before he can get to Docís place, he has encountered his father, as a teenager, and interfered with the famous first meeting between his parents. Now he has two problems on his hands: how to get back to the future, and how to make sure his parents fall in love. All the while, he has to survive the alien world of the 1950s. The plot is tightly set up, with a nice twist at the end to escalate tension (when Martyís plan to reunite his parents faces an unexpected change of roleplaying).

Marty as played by Michael J. Fox is a large part of the appeal of the movie. He has superb comic timing -- some of my favourite moments are small lines, tossed off with perfect aplomb. For example, when he sees his Uncle Joey in a crib in the past, an uncle familiar to him only as an incarcerated adult, he canít resist telling the baby, ďYou better get used to those bars!Ē Later, when Marty is trying to fend off the overtly carnal advances of his own mother, this comic timing almost makes us forget how deeply weird the Oedipal part of the story is. Christopher Lloyd as Doc is one of the best realizations of that kind of character in science fiction film. Itís a cheerful/cynical use of stereotype: having a mad scientist certainly helps propel the plot along, but Doc is also congenial in an insane way. I like the relationship between the two and how Doc gets along with Marty. I always wondered, how did they meet? That bit of backstory is left to the imagination, and the characters are realized fully enough without it.

Back to the Future has only a few things to dislike in it. One of the most annoying is the egregious use of Marty as inspiration for rock and roll. Chuck Berry certainly didnít need a white kid from the future to figure out how to play his music. As mentioned, the Oedipal aspects of the plot seem like an odd basis for a light-hearted story. And that pesky ďTo Be Continued...Ē More on that in a minute.

The time travel in the movie is supported by the consistent use of visual parallels, both to establish period and to give clues as to what is going on. One of the sly questions suggested by the production design: are the 80s actually better? Neither is black and white; Marty would go crazy in the authoritarian 50s, but the 80s are dirty and mean. The time travel device, a boring chair in both versions of The Time Machine, has been visually spiffed up, which is another reason for the appeal of the movie. Who wouldnít want to drive around in that De Lorean? Back to the Futureís past is highly mutable, and by definition, also fixable, thus the plot. Itís interesting to note Docís repeated refusal to accept a warning from Marty about his death that night in the future; this represents about the only mention of issues like free will. Like Star Trek IV, the time travel in some ways feels more like an excuse for fish out of water jokes than a serious rumination about the nature of reality. But serious rumination can be overrated! This is a fun movie.

A note on the sequels. Back to the Future Part II was inevitable considering the cheesy ďTo Be ContinuedĒ that comes up on screen at the end of the first movie. I actually enjoyed the second, more futuristic outing; it recomplicates the story rather joyously, and some of the speculation about the future is fun. The western setting of Back to the Future Part III didnít seem to have much personality to me (and I think the bland void of the movie has been coloured in retrospectively by the horror that was Wild Wild West). Iím a completist so Iíve watched all three, but when Iíve talked to friends who experienced the 80s as non-sf fans, Iíve found out that Back to the Future was a big hit but that the two sequels seem to have not even registered. In addition to its cultural impact, the first movie is clearly the best. As for further sequels, Iíve read that they have now been ruled out due to the unlikeliness of Michael J. Foxís participation.

DVD Note: After much anticipation, Back to the Future and its two sequels were released this year as a handy box set. Each movie comes on its own DVD, with commentary tracks and both older and recent making-of features. Compared to some hefty DVD releases, Back to the Future has few extras, but the picture quality is good and the light-hearted tone of the trilogy is preserved.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, written by Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Harve Bennett, and Nicholas Meyer from a story by Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett, directed by Leonard Nimoy, 1986, 120 min.

Time travel is an idea that pops up quite often in Star Trek and considering the lifespan of the franchise it may have been inevitable. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home ranks as one of the most successful and interesting examples of time travel in the ongoing Trek future history, although the two-part episode that concluded The Next Generation was also quite good. Looking back fondly on this movie and rewatching it are two different things: I had forgotten that the plot is distinctly clunky and the humour tends to make the consistency of the characterization waver here and there. The Voyage Home is by no means a perfect movie, but flaws aside, itís also entertaining and congenial (in much the same way as Back to the Future) and now available in an excellent Collectorís Edition DVD.

The Voyage Home essentially closes a trilogy, following the events of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock quite closely. Spock has been at the centre of most of the story, and by the beginning of The Voyage Home, he has a new body and a newly installed consciousness. The Enterprise has been destroyed, and Kirk has been called back to Earth to face a court martial over events relating to the battle that blew up the famous ship. The basic Enterprise crew has renamed their captured Klingon ship the Bounty and are heading back to Earth. So far, so good, especially for fans of the excellent second and third movies in the series.

But this introductory section doesnít have much to do with the rest of the movie, and soon becomes glossed over due to a new threat. A massive probe is heading straight for Earth, and in its wake it is leaving a string of crippled ships and blacked out space stations. Once in orbit around the Earth, the probe causes more havoc, and nothing seems capable of stopping it. The only clue as to the motivation of the strange probe is the eerie, high-pitched signal it emits. The next section is a bit of a head-scratcher, as the writing team struggles to get the story from Point A to Point C. First, one of the finest logical minds in the form of the newly resurrected Spock deciphers the signal. The probe is speaking in humpback whale song, and since there are no whales left in the oceans of Earth in the 23rd century, itís getting no reply. Second, the crew of the Bounty decide that they will go back in time to 20th century Earth and grab two whales and bring them back to the time of the probe. Third, they do this by going really fast around the sun. I donít know enough about Star Trek canon to say if this method of time travel has been done before or since, but it sounds pretty dubious!

Finally, the movie gets to the good stuff. The Bounty lands in San Francisco in the 1980s, and we get a number of hilarious scenes, as the uber-competent crew has to face the horrors and intricacies of 20th century life. In a pair of famous scenes, Kirk and Spockís quest to use public transit is defeated by the concept of exact change and Scotty is baffled by the lack of voice activation on 1986 computers. Many of McCoyís scenes portray him reacting crankily to the barbarities of primitive medicine. Later, Kirk meets a woman, of course, but this time he may have met his match: Dr. Gillian Taylor is a humpback whale specialist, and she is extremely suspicious of Kirkís motives when he comes around to her aquarium asking questions. Will they get the whales? Will Scotty change history when he gives away the secret of invisible aluminum? If and when they get back to the 23rd century, will the arrival of some humpback whales be enough to make the deadly probe go away? Itís no surprise that itís a light-hearted ending and that Kirk gets pardoned by the court martial due to his heroic efforts at saving Earth, but itís a fun trip along the way. I also liked the way the storyline between Kirk and Dr. Taylor gets resolved.

One of the key appeals of the original Star Trek series was the interaction between the close-knit members of the crew. The Voyage Home is probably the showpiece for those relationships, especially since the tone of the movie is much lighter than the previous two outings. Also, with Spock in a purer Vulcan state of mind than had been the case for many years, he has to relearn a lot of the camaraderie and human ways that made life on the Enterprise so interesting. This gives McCoy in particular extra opportunities to needle Spock. The comic scenes in this movie, like Spockís experimentation with profanity in the 1980s, are occasionally too broad, but overall the force of the characters and their long-term fellowship shines through.

More so than Back to the Future, the time travel in The Voyage Home feels like an excuse for fish out of water humour. None of the Federation officers seem too concerned about changing the past or other issues like that. Most of the poignancy of the story actually comes from the ecological issues, as heightened by the time travel. What will the Earth be like with empty oceans, polluted skies, and dead lands? Weíre getting a taste of it already, but it doesnít seem to be sinking in. As Spock says in the movie: ďTo hunt a species to extinction is not logical.Ē While there is probably a better reason to halt whaling or other such practices than to avoid the attention of a world-destroying interstellar probe in the 23rd century, the point still stands. Like the best science fiction, this movie focuses a debate by giving us a new perspective. The ostensible villains of the movie, the whalers, show up for only a few minutes at the end; the villain for most of the running time is something as abstract as widespread ecological callousness. The message is just as pertinent as ever, and it still strikes home because of the entertaining story that keeps us watching.

DVD Note: The Voyage Home was originally released as a barebones DVD, with a small featurette with Leonard Nimoy and not much else. Recently Paramount redid the package with grand style and now thereís a 2 DVD set available, jam-packed with goodies. Probably the best part is the feature-length commentary with Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, but there is also a text commentary and a second disc with features that range from interesting to esoteric to scarcely related. Highly recommended.

12 Monkeys, written by David Peoples and Janet Peoples, directed by Terry Gilliam, 1995, 110 min.

Note: The credits indicate that the script for 12 Monkeys was "Inspired by the film 'La Jetée' written by Chris Marker."

I consider 12 Monkeys, quirks and all, to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Gilliamís genius is sometimes uneven, but when he is working from a smartly written script -- as happened with Brazil, The Fisher King, and this movie -- then he can pull off wonders like few other directors. His long experience with Monty Python, a troupe that would hone any creative instinct, has always served him well. In 12 Monkeys, all the elements came together perfectly, from the script to visuals to the acting to the music. And best of all, the viewer experiences a time travel movie with some open-endedness but remarkably little in the way of internal contradiction.

James Cole lives in our future. He's a criminal, a convicted murderer, used as a convenient guinea pig for a trip to the dangerous aboveground, and later, for trips through time to the past. In 1996 (this movieís future), a deadly virus of some kind will destroy most of humanity -- there's nothing the scientists in charge in Cole's time can change about the past, but they want to get a hold of the pure strain of the virus in order to study it. Due to the chaos of billions of deaths, itís not clear who was responsible or even how to find the virus. The storyline of 12 Monkeys follows the subjective timeline of Cole's life, as he skips back and forth through time searching for the virus with the only clue available to the future: the Army of the 12 Monkeys did it. The simple subjective device of following Coleís point of view keeps us from confusion at the same time as it garners sympathy for Cole -- time travel is a wrenching experience and as he says at one point, "the human body was not meant to travel through time." Cole meets up with Railly, a psychologist of the mid-90s, several times and under several different circumstances. Is Cole crazy? With pronouncements like ďAll of you people are dead,Ē it certainly appears true, and he gets duly committed. In the asylum, Cole meets Jeffrey, a somewhat unstable individual whose ultimate role in the events of the film is one of its best surprises. Also, Cole has a recurring vision, of a man who gets shot in a public building, set to the most tragic violin solo imaginable. How do these elements work together? And what does the Army of the 12 Monkeys mean when they say "We did it!" and why might a message from Railly be Cole's only clue? It seems impossible that everything will fall together, but it does, and seamlessly.

The characterization in this film is superb. Cole is shown to be quite capable of doing harm, as when he beats the two thugs in the abandoned theatre in Railly's presence. He also radiates more menace in the dentist scene than most action stars would generally let on to -- Cole is a genuinely dangerous individual. But the film's power lies in its careful portrayal of him as a human being, a kind of normal guy, thrown into mental wards and world wars against his will. He struggles for survival, but also for some dignity of his own. James Cole is perhaps the best role that Bruce Willis has ever played; 12 Monkeys becomes a time travel movie with a human core because of James Cole and his story.

The supporting roles are similarly excellent. Madeleine Stowe portrays the character of Railly with a stunning, sensitive balance. As the psychologist who has lost her faith, as the author obsessed with the apocalypse, as the woman keeping her sanity in the face of intense pressure -- all of these aspects had me cheering. What a relief to have a science fiction movie without a screaming bimbo in the female lead role! Cole is the main character, but at least the movie pays attention to Railly's dilemmas and emotions. Brad Pitt received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the character of Jeffrey, in a role that does grab for attention. However flamboyant and over the top, there's also a subversive edge to the typical things Jeffrey says: Gilliam lets Pitt have fun as the madman who knows bitter truths about life. Personally, I liked the function of the Jeffrey subplot in 12 Monkeys, although I know some people who were upset at the misdirection. I will say no more, only that I felt that not a moment in this film was wasted.

Time travel and its paradoxes have been poorly treated by the movies, enough so to make everyone a little wary of the idea. When treated comedically, as in the case of Back to the Future and Star Trek IV, much can be forgiven, but when treated seriously, the task becomes far more difficult. How does 12 Monkeys fare? Where does its theory of time travel fit onto the spectrum between the mutable and immutable past? Itís not much of a spoiler to say that the movie falls firmly on the immutable side, and it works because everything about the film fits together to support that assertion. The past has always already happened, and this trickles down from the main mission of the future scientists -- to isolate the virus, not stop its initial spread -- to the day-to-day events in Coleís life. A good example is the message that becomes key to the plot: in the future, the scientists have deciphered a message that points to the Army of the 12 Monkeys as the culprits. Cole returns through time to find the Army, entangling his life with Raillyís. When the true role of the Army is discovered, Railly leaves a half-hysterical message on the designated answering machine, sarcastically saying what happened. Railly believes the future has been averted, but Cole realizes that this is the message that motivated his mission into the past. That this moment is psychologically crushing only prepares us glancingly for the larger heartbreak of the ending. The writing team gives us a story that secures our sympathy and provides the illusion of mutability by taking us along on the subjective chronological ride of Cole's life (it would be an interesting, albeit illegal exercise to remove this illusion by rearranging the movie into an objective timeline). Cole is searching for the truth, but what does the truth matter, in the end? Some things can be changed, when they are the future, possibly. But when they are the past, only tragedy is possible.

12 Monkeys is an interesting expansion of Marker's original film, La Jetée. Anyone who is even mildly intrigued should search out this short film immediately -- it's well worth the effort. Markerís work is full of arty technique, while 12 Monkeys uses some Hollywood gloss here and there. But the core story of the man who is standing on a pier with a younger version of himself remains powerful and moving in both films. Marker tends to encourage more of the esoteric speculation of the academic, but Gilliam seems to have many of the same aims in mind. Marker's ďSilent MovieĒ (a video installation designed for art galleries) in particular has a fascinating parallel to Gilliam's use of the old Hitchcock films in 12 Monkeys. Both La Jetée and 12 Monkeys certainly hold their own, no matter the company.

DVD Note: The Collector's Edition of 12 Monkeys is available on DVD. No extra footage, but rather some substantial and nifty extras. The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys is a 90-minute making-of documentary put together by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, with high production values and plenty of background information (Fulton and Pepe also made the recent documentary Lost in La Mancha, which is the story of Gilliam's failed efforts to make a movie based on Don Quixote). The other main feature of the 12 Monkeys DVD is a commentary track by Terry Gilliam and the producer, Charles Roven. The commentary repeats some of the information found in the documentary and was less scene-specific than I was hoping for. I can get general information about the production of 12 Monkeys from any number of places, but scene-specific commentary by Gilliam himself would be limited to something like a DVD commentary. Otherwise an excellent DVD.

Donnie Darko, written and directed by Richard Kelly, 2001, 110 min.

Of the six films in this column, Donnie Darko is the hardest to parse. At its surface, itís simply a story about a disturbed teenager, a finely observed tale of the horrors of high school and family. The movie could almost function at this level, except that all of the dread and creepy events seem to be pointing towards a science-fictional transformation or epiphany or trip through time. Iíll discuss the problematic plot mechanics in detail later, but I donít want that to overshadow my big-picture impression of the movie: a surprisingly gifted writer/director makes a debut that looks very smart and is by turns charming and disturbing and intriguing.

The movie opens with our eponymous hero asleep in the middle of a road somewhere on a mountain. Donnie wakes up, bicycles back home, and seemingly returns to the routine of any normal teenager in high school. But Donnie, already seeing a psychiatrist, becomes even more disturbed after an incident late one night. A voice in his head named Frank causes him to sleepwalk out of the house just as a jet engine falls on his bedroom. Frank also tells him that the world will end within 28 days or so. We get a glimpse of Frank early on: heís a giant bunny with a metallic and grotesque head, a demonic version of Harvey. Is there someone under the costume? What are Frankís motivations? After saving Donnieís life, Frank also tells Donnie to do things like vandalize the school and burn down a house. What will happen in 28 days? And where did the jet engine come from, if, as the FAA investigation finds out, there was no airplane that lost an engine?

Donnieís life continues, at least for that span of a month, and most of the movie consists of interaction with an outsized cast of characters. The other characters are often as sharply drawn as Donnie or Frank, especially Donnieís family. The mother and father fall close to several stereotypes, like the unobservant or self-absorbed suburban parental units. After closer observation however, they are actually decent parents. They might be self-satisfied Republicans, and out of touch, but itís hard to pin the blame for Donnie on them. I also liked Donnieís two sisters, one close to his age, and one much younger. The teachers at school loom large in the events of the film, with one of the most incompetent principals ever, and a scary and cringe-inducing gym teacher. Two sympathetic teachers help even things out, even if they have to struggle with their own issues more than they can aid Donnie. Donnieís psychiatrist is probably one of those roles that makes professionals cringe and reach for their angry-letter pen, but I think itís not too bad, however much she might be out of her depth. Donnieís girlfriend is also a relatively thankless role that fits well but could have been much worse. To round things out, Patrick Swayze gets a role as the worldís slimiest motivational speaker, best friend of the gym teacher, and bound for comeuppance. This is a big cast for a debut movie, and it all threatens to spin out of Kellyís control. But by the end, with a closing pan across most of the people, we know all of them, and thatís an accomplishment.

A few aspects of Donnie Darko simply donít work, like the broadly satiric teachers at the school. Apparently Kelly based these on some experiences from high school, but this is a case of truth being too unbelievable for fiction. Furthermore, this sets up the story for a bit of a false cheer-for-Donnie moment when he confronts them in a school assembly -- also not entirely believable. Later in the movie, Donnie has a now-famous conversation with his friends about the sexual habits of Smurfs; pop culture monologues/diatribes like this have been stale for over a decade now.

What does a movie as intricate as Donnie Darko mean? Thatís a good question that doesnít seem to have an answer. As much as I like the movie, Iím forced to admit that it uses genre baggage for a completely different purpose without much regard for internal coherency. A few explanations for the plot:

  1. Donnie is completely crazy. While supported by some internal evidence, this rationale is a cop-out -- granting it makes anything possible and any element dismissible -- and not many people seem to support it. However, I do see the intense and sinister texture of the movie as a valid portrait of mental disintegration (or at least, the morbidity that might be the result of the second explanation).

  2. Donnie has an Owl Creek experience in the few seconds before he is crushed to death. Kelly refers specifically to Bierceís famous story in interviews, so this is a legitimate rationale. But the movie ends with a slow pan across other characters waking up that morning, all acting with knowledge of events (Frank in particular gives this away) that would have happened only in Donnie's reverie if this explanation stands.

  3. Some form of time travel happens. This is the most problematic of all explanations, despite its apparent fit. In particular, if Donnie travels back from the end of the 28 days to the beginning of that time period, accompanying the jet engine in some way, and then not proceeding through the loop again, then where has the loop started? Hasnít the loop just extinguished itself, but only partially? In other words, the movie doesnít commit to the immutability of its premise fully, and runs into a logic trap that 12 Monkeys avoided.

  4. The movie is a colossal screw-up, plain and simple. Kelly simply throws in too many contradictory impulses and the movie dissolves into a mess without possible resolution. This is probably the easiest argument to make on a case-by-case basis if the movie is logically laid out beginning to end. I'll talk more about this in my discussion of the director's commentary on the DVD.

  5. A mix of all of the above. I tend to fall into this camp, even though it makes no sense as a category. However, with a judicious amount of #4 -- Kelly has many interesting ideas but isnít in full control of their expression -- this is the best way I can see to stop a different type of loop, a never-ending discussion of the movie. Iíve complained too often about the lack of internal consistency in other movies to let Donnie Darko off the hook so easily but there may be no other way out. I like the movie, despite all these problems, so perhaps that is Kellyís biggest achievement.

Donnie Darko is a case where the directorís commentary is the opposite of helpful. Bluntly, Kelly seems to have a completely separate movie in his head than the one on the screen. According to his comments, Donnie is endowed with superhero-like powers by the universe as it tries to heal itself from a rift in space-time. As I said, a different movie than the one I saw! This explanation suffers from most of the problems of #3 above, in addition to making the Frank-related subplot (important to #1 and #2) irrelevant. Also, the whole problem of causation is not addressed anywhere in the movie, and neither are superpowers. I wish I hadnít listened to the commentary available on the DVD, which has never been the case before.

Donnie Darko never got a proper release in North America, due to 9/11 related concerns. It couldnít have happened to a less apropos movie! It has an airplane crash, of a type, but the story is more about Donnieís personal life and the experience of high school. I only found out about Donnie Darko from the review in F&SF, and subsequently bought the bargain bin DVD. Iíve been reading rumours that a Directorís Cut of Donnie Darko will be released into theatres next year -- the deleted scenes were cut for a reason (theyíre mostly padding), but apparently some pop music got cut due to budgetary reasons. Again, this news needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

DVD Note: The current DVD of Donnie Darko is available for around $10, and it features directorís commentary, deleted scenes, and making-of material with background items like all of the Patrick Swayze infomercials. At that price, the movie is worth checking out even for skeptics.

Also on the Challenging Destiny website: my reviews of Time Bandits, Bill and Tedís Excellent Adventure, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

James Schellenberg lives in Canada, and has enjoyed re-watching all these classic time travel movies.

Last modified: December 12, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #17

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