A simplistic presentation of a potentially devastating story sinks “Dark Matter,” a drama about a promising foreign student who, unable to soar in the country of his dreams, down-spirals into horrific violence. Relevance and heartbreak exist plentifully on the palette of first-time feature director Chen Shi-Zheng, but mere surfaces prevail on the screen.
Inspired by a University of Iowa incident but set in Generic-ville, USA, the film is part immigrant-condition drama, part American, Chinese and Greek tragedy, and part culture-clash comedy, with melodramatic ingredients generously supplied by screenwriter Billy Shebar and Chen, who previously directed operas.
Protagonist Liu Xing (Liu Ye) is a brilliant Ph.D. candidate who arrives from China with extreme faith in the American dream. His delight when deceptively friendly cosmology luminary Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) accepts him onto his team and becomes his mentor constitutes the initial plot point.
Things thicken when Liu Xing, encouraged by supportive but naïve university benefactor Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), injects his theories about cosmic dark matter into the project he’s preparing for Reiser and outshines his boss. Reiser respondsby ousting Liu Xing from his orbit and rejecting his thesis. This blow, combined with romantic disappointment and feelings of shame for his academic failure and of jealousy toward Reiser’s new protege, sparks Liu Xing’s self-destruction.
The movie begins engagingly as an amusing look at cultural differences and language challenges facing newcomers. (“Up your bottoms,” says Liu Xing, toasting friends.)
It also presents a noteworthy picture of American academia as a nest of hypocrisy and machinating egos.
But as Liu Xing collapses, so does the film, with Chen failing to penetrate his tormented protagonist’s exterior.
Unable to capture alienation, a la Gus Van Sant, and lacking the resonance and intensity of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” or the subsurface tension of Chabrol’s “La Ceremonie,” the film ineffectively uses visual effects and Liu Xing’s letters to China to suggest impending eruption. The result is a good-intentions drama too superficial to affect us beyond the tear-jerk level or to justify its violent climax.
Among the cast, Liu Ye conveys desperation but can’t provide insight into his character’s workings, while Quinn’s stuck with a one-dimensional character representing western arrogance. Streep isn’t her best, but she still accounts for the sole impressive scene: an encounter involving Joanna, Liu Xing and the cosmetics that the once-proud young man sells door-to-door. An oasis moment, it movingly demonstrates the movie’s possibilities.
Dark Matter (two stars)
Starring Liu Ye, Meryl Streep, and Aidan Quinn
Written by Billy Shebar
Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.