Movie Review: Dark Matter

I chose to watch this movie because it was about – dark matter, the stuff that makes up ninety percent of the universe that we cannot yet explain. Interested in cosmology and brilliant people’s stories, I was intrigued enough by the preview to order the movie.

Liu Xing, a brilliant young Chinese student from Beijing makes his way to a prominent university in the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue his Ph.D. on the labor and savings of his working class parents in China. His father labors in a quarry, his mother in a laundry, both talk about the distant land where Liu Xing now studies. Liu Xing, we learn, has the highest entry exam scores in the history of the university and  obviously he gets the attention of Jake Reimer, his adviser and professor. He contributes with backbreaking work and brilliant insight to further the career of his professor. But he is smart enough that he challenges his professors and starts getting a reputation of not being a team player. We watch his struggles. So far this sounds good, but I have told you all the  good about the movie now.

Here is the dark side of Dark Matter:

The characters are shallow and unconvincing. For some reason there appear to be only Chinese graduate students working under professor Reimer. The Chinese chattering of the students amongst each other that we observe by reading subtitles, is surprisingly mundane. The filmmaker probably thought it was funny, but it does not work. Liu Xing is supposed to be brilliant, but we don’t experience this brilliance. Just writing a few formulas on a blackboard or looking at a 3-D model of the known universe on a Sun workstation does not convey brilliance. He seems outright stupid and obtuse, judging from the exchanges with his friends. I never bought into his purported brilliance.

At one point his proposed doctoral thesis gets rejected based on the argument that he did his calculations in single precision floating point math. Double precision was required, the sage professors argued, since any rounding error could invalidate the outcome of the whole work. Give me a break. There are three astronomy professors critiquing the thesis proposal of the most brilliant student in the history of the university, and the best they can come up with is that he has to rerun his numbers in double precision? For crying out loud, that takes another day on the Sun workstation, and that is that. But we are led to believe that he committed some grievous mistake that costs him his doctoral graduation. A shallow and unconvincing plot.

We also watch the surrounding characters dote on these students. There is a frustrated socialite played by Meryl Streep, who for some reason is into the Chinese culture. She invites the students to events that they could not care less about, she tries to learn Mandarin, we observe her stale marriage to an apparently wealthy business man, and we see her perform Tai Chi. But why? What is her interest in Chinese physics students? We wonder, and we never quite understand what’s up with her, why she is in this movie.

Then there are these sections where we see Liu Xing in front of great American scenery, in front of sky, mountains, waterfalls, fields and over the screen we see superimposed the Chinese characters for Fire, Sky, Water, Wood, etc. Why? Perhaps the Chinese filmmaker thought this was exotic and we’d learn something? Not only did it not make sense in the context, it had no meaning other than remind us this guy was Chinese. But then, almost every word out of his mouth was Chinese, so we really didn’t need that.

The ending was completely unreal, totally unconvincing and made no sense. It was almost like the director got tired of the movie and wanted it over with, since he didn’t know where else to take it. He’d run out of cardboard professors, ditsy socialites, dorky Chinese graduate students and the portrayal of culture clash cliches.

The soundtrack was nice. Female voices singing Chinese lyrics in an ethereal voice. It worked in sections of the movie.

Clearly, the filmmaker and director, Chen Shi-Zheng wanted to contrast the worlds of China and America, and he did. Shi-Zheng is a renowned opera and theater director, which explains the music. This was his film debut, and I must say, he needs to try a few more times.

Rating: *

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Dark Matter

  1. Anonymous

    I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but you say the ending is “completely unreal” yet it’s based on a true story from 1991 Iowa University.

    1. Just because something is loosely inspired by real events, it can still hit you as completely unreal in a movie. Thanks for pointing that out, though. I had not researched the source of the story.

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