Based on actual events at the University of Iowa in 1991 (which I did not know when I began watching), this film follows a young Chinese student named Liu Xing (played by Liu Ye) as he is accepted into a prestigious Cosmology research team based out of a Utah University. While working for a respected Cosmologist named Jake Reiser (played by Aidan Quinn) he makes his own revelations and theories that challenge that of his employer and mentor. This creates an obvious conflict between them which places his dreams of a Nobel Prize, and even just graduating at state if he decides to continue with his own theories and not Reiser’s.
The film is sometimes chaptered by Chinese characters, each referring to something in nature, whose profundity is a bit lost on me since they are inconsistently peppered throughout the film and come off as non sequitur since the title and main subject of Dark Matter refers to the unknown parts of the outer universe, not the natural and Earthbound. Letters that Liu Xing sends back to his parents make for far better markers to indicate shifts in the plot and mood. In fact, all of the stylized elements seem to fall flat, such as the aforementioned Chinese characters, musical portions, and CG trips into some sort of dream scape for Liu Xing during points of despair, whereas the film finds its true effectiveness when showing what is actually happening to the characters. The simplest parts to Dark Matter are the most moving.
The more light-hearted parts of the film sometimes stray too far into the wacky or corny, such as a strange mock showdown between the Chinese students while wearing cowboy outfits. Likewise, the more dramatic sides also seem to fall apart. The film manages to be poignant when simply examining the situations and characters (there are some great moments of seeing Liu Xing’s parents working while his letters home are read aloud) but by the time the violent climax arrives, I am not convinced. There is indeed a heavy sense of betrayal that helps our sympathy for Liu Xing and his suppressed brilliance, but a token failed romance and the presence of Meryl Streep as a friendly supporter fail in their attempt to amplify the desperation Liu Xing feels which ultimately drives him to commit a horrible act at the end of the film. His character is presented as wholly likable, including plenty of geared-to-be-adorable moments of broken English (such as saying “up bottoms” instead of “bottoms up” at a toast…tee hee, so cute), but the film fails to take his crushed hopes and present them as legitimate grounds for evil. Nor does the inexplicable running of Meryl Streep and Liu Xang’s mother during the climax make any real sense other than being an obvious cinematic device used to build suspense.
Presented in 1.78 Anamorphic Widescreen. The film’s lighting is intentionally dark through many parts and is only notably bright when using natural light, but still looks well balanced. The picture is very clear and clean.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. The music is mixed well and the dialogue is rather clear. The main issue I have is I found that the English subtitles for the Chinese dialogue came and went a bit too fast sometimes. More than once did I rewind to catch what I had missed.
Alternate subtitles available in Spanish.
The menu would have you believe the the Spanish Subtitles are a special feature. So really, there are none.
This film is made with skill and manages to be interesting for the majority of it thanks largely to a good lead performance by Liu Ye. The use of stylized elements seem to tell me that the director did not fully trust the story to have an effect if left alone to tell itself.
To its credit, it does not advertise itself as being based on a true story, which means it wishes to stand as its own story. Had I known what the ending had in store, I would certainly not have felt the same. I confirmed this by going through a second time and found myself extremely depressed by it, although it seemed to flow smoother during said second viewing. Structurally, the climax does not fit the rest of the film, but during both viewings I found that the ending had an emotional resonance that cannot be denied. Perhaps it is simply the great amounts of sympathy for a delightful young genius that makes it all so heartbreaking and seems all the more unnecessary.