Dark Matter ** ½
Directed By: Shi-Zheng Chen.
Written By: Billy Shebar.
Starring: Ye Liu (Liu Xing), Meryl Streep (Joanna Silver), Aidan Quinn (Reiser), Bill Irwin (Herb), Blair Brown (Hildy), Erick Avari (R.K. Gazda), John Rothman (Rene), Rob Campbell (Small), Joe Grifasi (Colby), Taylor Schilling (Jackie), Lloyd Suh (Laurence Feng).
Liu Xing comes to America from his native China after completing his degree in cosmology in Beijing. He gets accepted into the University of Iowa from his grad school, and will get to work with one of his idols – Professor Jake Reiser – founder of the Reiser model, which tries to explain the Big Bang. He is a brilliant student, and soon he becomes Reiser’s favorite. But Liu Xing is not just interested in doing further work on Reiser’s Model – he has his own ideas about Dark Matter and how it contributed to the start of the universe.
I am no scientist; so much of their talk went way over my head. I still don’t really know what the hell dark matter is, despite all the talk about it in the movie, but that is really beside the point. The movie really isn’t about science theories and the Big Bang, but about this young Chinese man adrift in a world that his not his own, and trying to assimilate and failing. It is doubtful that many people who watch the movie will not have heard what the ending is (if you don’t, and don’t want to know, stop reading now), because the movie, which got some good reviews at Sundance 2007, had its release date shifted after the massacre at Virginia Tech. Yes, this is another school shooting movie, but this one is different. You feel sorry for Liu Xing, who after all is just trying to do his best, trying to make his parents proud. Throughout the course of the movie, he sends letters home to his parents recounting his triumphs – first his real ones, and then as things go bad, his imagined ones. We see his parents, poor, working menial jobs in China, but proud of their son. In his eyes, he cannot let them down.
The first half of the movie deals with Liu Xing (Ye Liu) and his triumphs. His work with Reiser (Aidan Quinn) makes him the professor’s favorite, and his own research starts to get some notice of other academics. He makes friends with Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), a wealthy woman obsessed with Chinese culture, who wants to reach out and make a connection with all the Chinese students coming to the University. He has an innocent flirtation with Jackie (Taylor Schilling), a local waitress at the coffee house he visits; that he hopes may turn into something else. He has good friends, and is for the most part, happy.
Things change at about the half way mark, with the arrival of his old rival from Beijing University Laurence Feng (Lloyd Suh), who now speaks in English, and has changed his name to make it easier for Americans to say. He also has a beautiful wife and an adorable daughter, that he has had baptized a Christian. It becomes clear that Reiser has taken a shine to Laurence, and perhaps Liu Xing has been shunted off to the background. Things get worse when Reiser refuses to grant him permission to do his complicated dissertation. And the two become bitter rivals when Liu Xing has an article published about Dark Matter in an Academic journal without consulting him first. Things continue to spiral downward, until finally, Reiser and his team refuse the findings of Liu Xing’s dissertation because he used single precision calculations, instead of double. Meanwhile, Laurence’s star continues to rise.
The problem I had with the movie is that I do not buy the finale as it presented. The movie goes to great pains to make us feel sympathy for Liu Xing, and the performance by Ye Liu is remarkable in that regard. Although he becomes depressed, and ends up taking a dead end job – it didn’t have to be that way. With his degree, he could have gone back to China and been a successful scientist. He could have taken a corporate job in America. Or, he could have redone his calculations and gotten his PhD. But Liu Xing decides to do none of that, and instead goes on a shooting spree at the school. Unlike many school shooters, his targets are chosen deliberately, not at random. But my problem is that I do not believe that the character we have been presented with for 80 minutes would do what he does in the last 10. It simply doesn’t make sense.
The movie is based (very loosely) on a real incident at the University of Iowa, when a Chinese immigrant, who did get his PhD, just didn’t win the top prize for the year, went on a similar spree before turning the gun on himself in 1989. Reading his story on Wikipedia, I couldn’t help but think that had they stuck to the facts, they would have had a better movie. Instead, they take great pains to make us feel sorry for the main character, to make us like him, and we do. His actions at the end of the movie seem completely out of character for him.
None of this is to say that Dark Matter is a bad movie. It is an intelligent study of cultural confusion run wild, and a fascinating study of how petty academia can be, when those at the top are challenged by those beneath them. In the end, Dark Matter is really a movie about competing egos – Reiser’s ego will not allow him to admit the possibility that a student could do better work then he can, and Liu Xing’s ego will not allow him to do work that he feels beneath him. For both of them, it is all or nothing – and that is exactly what they end up with – nothing.