Chinese student Liu Xing (Liu Ye) arrives at a major American university to study cosmology with heavyweight academic Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). He’s initially considered the most brilliant student the department has ever had, which leads Liu to dream of academic glory and the Nobel Prize.
But despite Liu’s Chinese-style deference to authority, he soon undertakes a study of dark matter, an unseen substance that supposedly is the basic building matter of the universe. This soon puts him in conflict with Reiser’s own theories, and the general trend of studies in the field. Yet Liu is so caught up in what he sees as a major breakthrough on his part, he becomes totally oblivious to the academic politics surrounding him. When he is told to re-do his Ph.D. thesis, and an obviously inferior fellow student becomes Reiser’s new pet, Liu is crushed. His response is a terrible act of violence.
Dark Matter is based on a 1991 incident at the University of Iowa, in which a graduate student whose career trajectory was similar to Liu’s murdered his rival, the department head, and several others. The material is certainly compelling, and filled with cultural nuances, particularly the shame Liu feels when he suffers loss of face after he is denied a Ph.D. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Liu, who is totally adrift, is shown trying to sell some cosmetics to Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), a university patron who has befriended its Chinese graduate students. The embarrassment felt by both characters is so palpable, the sequence will make any viewer cringe.
Yet despite solid, sometimes innovative direction by Chen Shi-Zheng, a theatre and opera director, there’s something missing here. It’s certainly not the fault of the actors, who are just fine. Liu Ye is certainly likeable as the eager young student, and Quinn is excellent in the preening-academic-as-villain role. But there’s a certain inevitability about the story, which drains the film of any sense of suspense. And like a number of mass murderers these days (the Virginia Tech shooter being a major exception), the main character is, in a sense, so blandly normal, he’s almost uninteresting. Until he cracks, that is.
What this means is that Dark Matter is certainly interesting, and easy to sit through, but not as compelling as it wants to be. If there is something missing at the core of its main character—a Western-style sense of self-worth which allows him to rebound from tragedy—there is also a void in the center of the film. It’s called drama with a capital D, and without it, Dark Matter is nothing more than a well-made curio.