“Dark Matter” begins with a shot of Meryl Streep practicing tai chi, and therein lies a precise encapsulation of the film’s attitude toward the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures. In its 90-minute duration, the film grapples with a number of weighty themes: the origins of the universe, the importing of Chinese scholarly talent by American universities, even the deep causes of incidents of campus violence, like those at Columbine and Virginia Tech. But ultimately, the film’s approach to these issues is as suspect as an American movie star going through the motions, however gracefully, of the thirteen postures.
Based loosely on the story of Gang Lu, a physics graduate student at the University of Iowa who killed five people and paralyzed a sixth in 1991 out of academic jealousy, “Dark Matter” follows Liu Xing, a cute but furtive student from Beijing who arrives at an unnamed American university to work under his hero, cosmology theorist Jacob Reiser. As played by Aidan Quinn, Reiser is a self-absorbed celebrity-academic, less concerned with the higher aims of scholarship than with furthering his own research by milking data from his hard-working Chinese students.
Busily running programs for Reiser while trying to adjust to this new environment, Liu Xing is at first green and unaccustomed to the ups and downs of the American Dream, but with the help of a welcoming committee headed by Streep’s Joanna Silver, a wealthy “patron of the arts” and devout orientalist, he soon develops a taste for Westerns, “blonde-haired, blue-eyed American girls,” and Nobel Prize ambitions. But when these ambitions run afoul of Reiser’s own ideas, the American advisor seeks out — for some reason — to crush his students’ ambitions of fame and fortune, thus instigating violent consequences.
First-time director Shi-Zheng Chen‘s style is nothing if not assured, presenting Liu Xing’s newfound American home as a wonderland of color and possibility, and occasionally soaring into intergalactic flights of fancy which serve to suggest, if not actually to explain, the cosmological theories that the characters talk so much about. (As a curious counterpoint, Chen interpolates the American narrative with scenes of Liu Xing’s parents in China, which is here shot with a grainy film stock that inexplicably suggests some kind of primitive land-before-time.)
The mysteries of the universe may lie in the titular “dark matter,” Liu Xing’s field of study, but the real mystery of the film is why such a charming, if socially awkward young man, played with winsome energy and pathos by Liu Ye, should be so quickly abandoned by his friends and Joanna, and so ghoulishly upended by Quinn’s Reiser for not being “a team player.” The film barely pauses to ponder these questions and the motivations of its characters, even as it pits its protagonist toward his inevitable actions.
To its credit, and in contrast to other portraits of campus violence, “Dark Matter” shows restraint where you’d least expect it. It doesn’t dolefully intone about the would-haves and should-haves of Liu Xing’s situation, and when the inevitable occurs, it treats it as such and not as a cause for hand-wringing. Furthermore, viewers have been so primed with sympathy for this charming, misunderstood graduate student — and enmity for his naysayers — that one can’t help but partly root for him as he guns down the members of his department.
In the absence of any gas-bag morality in the film, one might accuse the filmmakers of being irresponsible, as glorifying or at least failing to appropriately sermonize on its protagonist’s fateful actions. Shouldn’t the point of a film about campus violence be to preach the evils of such events and thereby prevent future Virginia Techs, future Columbines? Perhaps, but it’s also possible that Chen believes that by trying to empathize and not to further demonize his campus shooter, his film might have more traction with those lost souls on the margins of the campus community. Either way, such cinematic crusades against school shootings greatly overestimate the cinema’s role as moral arbiter. What is probably more to the point is that “Dark Matter” is too slick and simplistic to make much point about its subject at all. Like its vague astrophysics, its treatment of its characters and their motivations is too fuzzy and superficial to offer any real insight into situations like those at Virginia Tech or University of Iowa. Like Liu Xing’s ideas about dark matter, it comes off as little more than pure speculation.