Dark Matter (2007): Intriguing but Disappointing Melodrama Starring Meryl Streep

Sundance Film Fest 2007 (Spectrum)–The feature debut of opera and theater director Chen Shi-Zheng, Dark Matter, is a thematically intriguing but ultimately disappointing and senseless melodrama about academic politics, freedom of expression, emigration and cultural assimilation that even reliable pros like Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn can’t save.

Set in the early 1990s, the saga depicts the world of Liu Xing (Chinese for Shooting Star), a Chinese science student pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S. Driven by ambition, yet unable to navigate academic life, Liu Xing is inexorably pushed to the margins of American life, until he loses his way.

Inspired by a real event, “Dark Matter” was scripted by Billy Shebar, from a story by Chen Shi-Zheng and Billy Shebar. What begins as a timely and subtle drama devolves into excessive melodrama, culminating in a tragic climax and ending that are not entirely earned or called for, considering the nature of most of the text. “Dark Matter” is the kind of movie where you could actually put your finger at the scene in which it goes wrong, losing dramatic and psychological credibility.

At first, everything is looking up. Liu Xing (Liu Ye) arrives at a big Western university, planning to study in earnest the origins of the universe. He finds other Chinese students to share a cheap apartment. Gradually assimilating, he flirts with an attractive American girl who works in a local teashop.

When the head of the department, Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn), welcomes Liu Xing into his select cosmology group, it seems that only hard work stands between him and bright future in American science. At an orientation for foreigners sponsored by a local church, Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), a wealthy patron of the university, notices the earnest student, and an unspoken bond forms between them.

Liu Xing becomes Reisers protg, accompanying him to a prestigious conference where he makes an impressive debut. He is drawn to the study of dark matter, an unseen substance that shapes the universe, but it soon becomes clear that his developing theories threaten Reiser’s theoretical models.

Even so, excited by the possibility of a breakthrough, Liu Xing is deaf to warnings that he must first pay his dues and play subservient to his mentor. Soon he is eclipsed within the department by Laurence, a more dutiful Chinese student, and is forced to go behind Reisers back to publish his discoveries. When the article draws ire instead of accolades, Liu Xing turns to Joanna, who naively encourages him on what becomes an unfortunate collision course.

Liu Xing clings to the idea of American science as a free market of ideas, and American society as wide open to all immigrants. But in the end, his dissertation is rejected, and the girl in the teashop brushes him off. His roommates find jobs, leaving him behind. Too proud to accept help from Joanna, and unwilling to return home to his parents, Liu Xing becomes a ghost-like presence at the university.

Left alone with his shattered dreams, he explodes in a final, senseless act of violence. It’s too bad that the movie collpases dramatically in its last reel for there are few stories set in the academic world, as experienced by outsiders.

Spoiler Alert

Indeed, we are led to believe that the tensions caused by academic politics push Liu toward an inevtiably traumatic mental and emotional crisis, increasingly becoming paranoid and even dangerous, with only one option left, shocking Violence.
In the end, it’s hard to believe that a bright, ambitious student like Liu Xing would choose to do what he does, and he remains an engima, a fact aggravated by the shallow script and pale performance of the leas actor.

End Note

At the Sundance Film Fest, “Dark Matter” won the Alfred P. Sloan prize, which honors an outstanding feature focusing on science or technology.