If I’ve got this right, cosmologists use the term “dark matter” to refer to the 99% of the universe that doesn’t emit enough light to be seen. They’re not sure what it’s made of exactly, but they theorize it has enormous gravitational effect on all the things we can
see out in space, namely galaxies, stars, and alien spaceships. In other words, dark matter is what’s bubbling just below the surface of things, the unknown quantity making everything tick, which is an apt enough metaphor for Chen’s directorial debut that has less to do with the darkness permeating the cosmos than it does with the darkness rattling around in our own heads. Loosely based on the story of Gang Lu, a Chinese student at the University of Iowa who turned violent after his doctoral dissertation failed to win a prestigious academic award in 1991, Dark Matter
follows the sad tale of Liu Xing (Liu), a young genius from a poor neighborhood in Beijing who arrives in small-town, big-sky America to build elaborate computer models of the universe for a theoretical-cosmology heavyweight named Reiser (Quinn). Now, it’s true that in the movies it rarely takes much to turn a prodigy crazy – a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff or the belief that communists are planting subversive code in copies of Life
magazine should do the trick – but demanding a detailed map of the infinite cosmos is enough to run anyone mad, especially a sensitive foreigner stuck in Middle America with barely enough English to order a cup of tea. So when Liu thinks he’s discovered the reconciliation point between Reiser’s cosmic string theory and his own love for the mysteries of dark matter (his eureka moment, like all cinematic eureka moments, comes not in a lab or a classroom but in the kitchen, while cooking eggs), he glows with the light of a thousand supernovas, only to learn that his master – as capable of jealousy as anyone – won’t give his theory the time of day. It’s hard to ask for juicier, or more timely, subject matter than high-pressure academic ambition turning violent, but to map the descent of a genius into madness isn’t a task to be taken lightly. Sophisticated psychoanalysis will be required, as will sensitivity to the slow accumulation of slights and disappointments that, over time, add up to a rationalization for terrible behavior. There is, however, no need for a scene in which your hero loses touch with reality via cockeyed camera trickery and thumping techno music – especially when you’ve got in your arsenal a heartbreaking scene showing your disenchanted Einstein reduced to selling skin-care products door-to-door to make ends meet. That scene (featuring a predictably brilliant Streep) says more about the frailty of human identity and the depths of shame than any thousand hallucination sequences or contrived foreshadowings ever could.