The Most Unknown


Jennifer Macalady explores a new world.

(2018) Documentary (Motherboard/Abramorama) Jennifer Macalady, Davide D’Angelo, Axel Cleermans, Luke McKay, Rachel L. Smith, Victoria Orphan, Jun Ye, Anil Smith, Laurie R. Santos, Emelie Caspar, Brian Hedlund, Joseph Garguglia, Erik Cordes Chris Gates, Warrick Roseboom. Directed by Ian Cheney

 

These days, science isn’t the sexiest career choice as it was in the glory days of NASA or at the beginning of the computer revolution. Scientists are looked upon with suspicion and even disdain by much of the general American public, which says less about science and scientists than it does about America and the political landscape of the country at present.

But even though there are fewer college students going into science majors and careers in the sciences, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of excitement in the varied fields. This is something of a scientific experiment courtesy of the science journalism arm of Vice News, taking nine scientists, all of them working on some of the most basic and important questions ranging from what would life on other planets look like, how does the brain create consciousness, how are stars and planets created and what is the nature of time. Each scientist journeys to a different place in the world to meet up with a scientist in a different field; the resulting conversations are lively, and more importantly, accessible to the layman.

We are introduced to microbiologist Jennifer Macalady who journeys to Italy to meet physicist Davide D’Angelo who in turn heads to Brussels to meet cognitive psychologist Axel Cleermans. He heads to Nevada to meet up with astrobiologist Luke McKay. McKay’s assignment is to go to Hawaii to meet astrophysicist Rachel L. Smith. She gets to go on a deep dive off of Costa Rica with Cal Tech geobiologist Victoria Orphan to explore the life forms in a methane seepage. She in turn meets physicist Jun Ye in California to see the world’s most accurate atomic clock. He heads to the UK to meet neuroscientist Anil Smith who then heads to the office of cognitive psychologist Laurie R. Santos who eventually goes full circle to the Italian caves where Macalady is working.

Their enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring; their passion is undeniable but these are not movie scientists rocketing in all directions willy nilly without restraint; these are dedicated professionals who are absolutely obsessive about doing this right. They are methodical and patient, knowing that these questions won’t have easy answers and therefore will require time and determination in order to find te right direction. Some of them, like D’Angelo who is exploring the mystery of dark matter, isn’t sure that he’ll find answers in his own lifetime but he’s confident that answers will one day be found and that he will help find either by steering future researchers onto the right path or at least away from the wrong one.

Some of the images here are mind-blowing, including marine life that consumes methane and helps keep our planet’s atmosphere from becoming toxic or the glowing isotope that powers the atomic clock. The filmmakers go to all sorts of locations from the black rock desert of Nevada, the jungles of Costa Rica, the Atomium in Brussels and gleaming laboratories all over the world.

If there is a fault here, it is that there might be too many conversations plugged into an hour and a half. In some ways this might have worked better as an episodic series with a half hour to an hour devoted to each of the nine segments. However, if the only fault you can find in a documentary is that there isn’t enough of it, the filmmakers are doing something right.

This is a documentary that just might inspire you to take science more seriously, or at least appreciate the process more. Certainly these scientists are anything but arrogant, idiosyncratic or hidebound, nor are they loose cannons. They are fresh-faced, enthusiastic, passionate about their work and brilliant. They never talk down to each other nor the audience; the result is that you get caught up in their enthusiasm. Maybe I as a layman will never understand the importance of dark matter or be as passionate about cave slime but I can be very happy that somebody is.

The film is currently playing the Quad Theater in New York and will be making a limited run in various theaters and festivals around the country. In August, it will be heading to Netflix. There will also be additional material made available at that time. Keep an eye out for it – this is worth seeing both as an educational aid for young people and for adults who want to feel inspired by science.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most effective advertising for a career in science since Cosmos. Some of the footage is truly remarkable. The film looks into some really basic but important questions. The science is explained in a relatable manner.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t get as in-depth into the conversations as you might like.
FAMILY VALUES: Although there is brief mild profanity, this is truly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Macalady was also featured in the 2012 science documentary The Search for the Origin of Life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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Grace Jones: Bloodfight + Bami

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