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.
Click here to read all of Leo Goldsmith’s review of Dark Matter.