There’s exactly one sterling scene in Dark Matter, an encounter between brilliant but increasingly marginalized cosmology researcher Liu Xing (Liu Ye) and his department’s generous, China-obsessed benefactor Joanna (Meryl Streep). Driven to sell beauty products door-to-door after proposing—to complete dismissal—a hypothesis about the universe’s dark matter that contradicts his esteemed professor’s own theory, Liu arrives at Joanna’s home and, in an exchange filled with embarrassment, frustration, and anger, silently and gently applies a topical cream to her quivering cheek. It’s a quiet but highly charged moment that speaks volumes in its silence, thereby making it the only scene in Chen Shi-Zheng’s film that isn’t TV movie-grade humdrum.
In this based-on-actual-events tale, Liu Xing arrives in the States during the early ‘90s to pursue a PhD—and, he hopes, the Nobel Prize—under the tutelage of Aidan Quinn’s Professor Reiser, who brags about rebelling against his mentor but, upon learning that Liu plans to challenge his famous Reiser Model, quickly finds a more compliant researcher to be teacher’s pet. Reiser’s condemnation of communism’s conformity and admiration for democratic individualism is thus presented as a sham, but aside from depicting American academia as a cutthroat environment that can inspire deadly resentment, there’s not much going on in Dark Matter, in large part because director Chen and screenwriter Billy Shebar’s script—aside from the aforementioned meeting between Liu and Joanna—never truly gets underneath its increasingly troubled protagonist’s surface.
Instead, they simply opt for bland melodrama gussied up with the occasional flourish, from exploding-supernova special effects, to Streep performing Tai Chi exercises on a rooftop (like some outtake from Vanilla Sky), to title cards that segment the story for reasons almost as oblique as the explications about dark matter, a concept apparently so complex that the film avoids substantially addressing it—and the dramatically crucial differences between Liu and Reiser’s theories—except via clunky metaphors.