Science Fiction Plausibility & The Donnie Darko Effect

My eldest daughter and I recently rented the film Source Code, a fast-paced time-slip / alternative-reality action thriller in which an US army pilot, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, awakens on a commuter train with no memory of how he got there, and inexplicably inhabiting the body of a total stranger. After 8 minutes, the train blows up, although you’ll be pleased to hear that this is not the end of the story. As Science Fiction films go, it’s not bad – providing you don’t examine the science too carefully. The plot rips along, ticking all the boxes for action, fantasy, romance and mystery with even a hint of philosophical questioning, which sets you thinking (or rather scratching your head) after the film ends. So it was no surprise when, as the credits started to roll, my daughter turned to me with the now familiar words, “Wait a minute! So what really happened?” 

This need for some level of scientific plausibility or at least consistency is one of the traits (not sure if good or bad)  which I share with my daughters. We’re quite willing to suspend disbelief and concede one or two ruptures in the known laws of physics, providing the story remains logically consistent within that new, slightly modified version of reality.  Source Code, in my view, goes over the edge in this respect, requiring just a little too much suspension of disbelief and leaving me with a sense of frustration instead. After debating with my daughter the possible explanations for the film’s eventual outcome, I commented that it was not all that dissimilar to the debates we had enjoyed following our numerous viewings of the wonderful, yet (for us) utterly frustrating film, Donnie Darko. We then coined the term, The Donnie Darko Effect, in an attempt to capture some of this sense of frustration.

If you’re not familiar with Donnie Darko, it is another cross-genre science fiction / fantasy / horror film, also starring Jake Gillenhaal, and also involving time travel and alternate realities. Yet for some reason of which I’m not entirely clear, but which is undoubtedly helped by the unusually haunting sound-track, it is much more intriguing and compelling than Source Code. In fact it is so well put together that all the way through you feel certain that the weirdness will have some logically consistent explanation. The only problem is that it doesn’t – or at least, not without inventing a whole load more science, none of which is explained in the film itself, but which has since been ingeniously constructed by the armies of Sci-Fi geeks which have helped to give it its cult following. For example, during the film, there are a few vague references made to a fictional book called the Philosophy of Time Travel, which supposedly holds some explanation for the increasing weirdness in which Donnie finds himself, but not enough of this is revealed to provide any satisfying explanation during the film itself. Only if you’re prepared to do a spot of Googling will you find a whole new discipline of physics handily created for the sole purpose of explaining all the apparent inconsistencies.

“Get over it, the clue is in the name – Science FICTION!” some of you will say, but for me, besides ticking all the Hollywood boxes, science fiction needs be based on good science. In the last century, real science has proven much weirder and more mysterious than the imagination of any science fiction author I’m aware of, and so the need to invent radical new science has, in my view, reduced quite a bit. To me, far more convincing is to take one or two exciting new areas of advancement and then extrapolate these beyond the bounds of current knowledge.  My favourites at this include Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Michael Crichton. Some, such as Neil Stevenson, and cyber-punk creator, William Gibson, extrapolate current science and technology even further, creating whole new speculative worlds, rich in their own uniquely created culture and jargon.  William Gibson’s first hit, Neuromancer, and many of his subsequent works, are perfect examples of this. Set in a somewhat scary and dystopian future, in which Internet technology has advanced to the point where the boundaries between real-life and on-line life have become blurred, technologically enhanced humans jack themselves into the net in a kind of Tron-like way, risking life and limb both on as well as off the net.

Although to many, this may not seem so different to any other Sci-Fi plot, Gibson’s novels possess a realism which very few of the  thousands of Sci-Fi titles littering the Amazon charts can boast. To simply make your characters do whatever the hell you feel like making them do, without so much as a cursory nod to any existing known science, or worse still to just throw together scientific terms without bothering to make use of the truly abundant wonder and mystery already lurking behind such terms, strikes me as a cop-out.

Why then do I like Donnie Darko so much? Now there’s a mystery almost worthy of scientific research. Perhaps it’s just the Donnie Darko Effect!

What do you think?





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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. You write that “for some reason of which I’m not entirely clear, but which is undoubtedly helped by the unusually haunting sound track…” you found the film more intriguing and compelling than than The Source Code, or apparently many other films.

    Have you considered the possibility that it was precisely because of the music? Or that, had you heard the sound track without the interruptions of characters’ voices and sound effects, etc., and with instead of the film, say, a series of carefully selected fractals as the visual, you might have found it far more compelling, perhaps even dangerously so?

    There may even be a story idea in there somewhere.


    1. Yes, I think you might be right, Francis. Do I take it you’ve read the book then? 🙂

  2. Thanks Michael,
    Good to know I’m not alone in what I prefer to read as well as write 🙂
    Good luck with Blood Siren!

  3. I could not agree more. In today’s day and age not only has the cutting edge of scientific research proven to be much stranger and more fascinating than we could have imagined as recently as ten years ago, but the average reader of science fiction is well aware of what is plausible and what is just plain wrong.
    Smart, plausible science fiction is a joy to read and watch. The rest of it just gives me a headache.

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