Dark Matter

Dark Matter

Ye Liu examines Meryl Streep's face for unsightly blemishes.

(2007) Drama (First Independent) Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Peng Chi, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Yonggui Wang, Lei Tsao, Jing Shan, He Yu, Bo Yi, Boris McGiver, Bill Irwin, Taylor Schilling. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

We struggle to understand the complex workings of the universe. Mostly the discoveries we make serve to illustrate that we are painfully ignorant and that the universe is a far more wondrous place than we could ever imagine. However, there is a dark side to the universe, one that resides in the matter that not only binds the universe together but touches the dark places in the human heart.

Liu Xeng (Liu) is a Chinese student studying for his doctorate at an unnamed Southwestern U.S. university. He is admonished by his family as he leaves for the great unknown that is America to make his family proud and bring no disgrace to the family name. No pressure, right?

He is brought into a world of academic politics, woefully unprepared. Brilliant in the science of cosmology (the study of the workings and origins of the universe), he is interned to Dr. Reiser (Quinn), one of the most respected scientists in the United States. At first, they get along very well – Xeng is brilliant which reflects positively on Dr. Reiser.

Xeng joins a number of other Chinese students sharing a house in the university community. Mostly, they like to hang out, drink beer, talk about chicks – and particle physics. Those wacky college students! Xeng even develops a crush on a comely barista (Schilling), although that turns out to be unrequited. He’s living the American dream, college nerd style.

The Chinese students stay in America is being facilitated by Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy patron with a keen interest in Chinese culture. She takes a special liking to the young Xeng, whose brilliance and shy sweetness intrigue her. Then one day, Xeng has a breakthrough – a theory about dark matter that might change the way we see the universe.

But the wheels start to fall off. His theory comes into direct conflict with Dr. Reiser’s own – which the arrogant and egocentric Reiser can’t allow. Reiser works behind the scenes to discredit Xeng, who loses an important prize to one of his roommates who has been making a point of kissing Dr. Reiser’s ass. Xeng is unable to land a job following his graduation and is forced to sell skin care products door to door to make ends meet. His mental state fractures and shatters, leading to tragedy.

This is loosely based on events at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a graduate student named Gang Lu opened fire on several professors and students, killing five before turning his gun on himself. The academic world depicted here is not necessarily the one that was encountered by Lu in his downward spiral, but it is pretty accurate as to some of the down side – dark side – of modern American universities. It is sadly true that politics usually trump performance when it comes to human endeavor.

The culture clash between the Chinese students and their American hosts is one of the most compelling things about the movie. The students are astonished to discover that Americans send their elderly to separate facilities; in China, caring for the elderly is part of a family’s responsibility and to not do so would be a serious loss of honor.

There are a lot of scientific ideas that are put across here that are necessary for the advancement of the plot. They could easily be dry and confusing to the audience, but Shi-Zheng manages to make them at least reasonably understandable with a liberal use of computer graphics to aid him.

Getting Streep was amazing; I don’t know how they convinced her to do this movie but she is typically wonderful, performing in a way that is effortless and authentic. She doesn’t exactly steal the movie but she is the most prominent reason to see the film. Liu as Xeng does a credible job, but his mental deterioration doesn’t feel authentic; he goes from frustrated to homicidal almost without any sort of transition. It’s a little bit jarring, even if you do know it’s coming.

The middle third drags a little bit, but the first and last parts of the movie are exceptionally paced. The feeling of impending tragedy hangs throughout the movie. Shi-Zheng has divided the film into five chapters, each pertaining to a specific element. He utilizes a Chinese children’s chorus singing standard American songs as a kind of linking device that foreshadows and forebodes.

I like many of the elements of the movie; it just doesn’t generate a movie that is a cohesive whole. The conceit of Dark Matter as an allegory for petty human emotions under the surface is a nice one, but a bit obscure. That may wind up losing some audience; still, anything with Meryl Streep is going to be worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Meryl Streep elevates the movie with yet another unforced performance. Shi-Zheng manages to present complex scientific ideas without sailing completely over the heads of the audience. The cultural clash between the students and their hosts are the best element of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third drags a bit and Liu Xeng’s mental breakdown doesn’t feel authentic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of intense violence, some sexual content and a modicum of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Chen Shi-Zheng is best known in China for directing Chinese opera productions; this is his feature film directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $66,375 on an unreported production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With

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