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The American Dream is placed into the care of a Chinese cosmology student in "Dark Matter," a welcomingly unique drama that uses tenets of academic discussion and culture shock shift to build suspense and an air of tragedy. Buttressed by outstanding, unpredictable performances and a beguiling mood of raw nerve collegiate ambition, "Matter" develops erratically but intelligently. It's a modest statement of desire, but it comes together with great cinematic conviction.
Liu Xing (Ye Liu) has come to an American grad school to study cosmology under the respected Professor Reiser (Aidan Quinn), who looks to his Chinese students to help build a model of the origins of the universe. Living under the guidance of sponsor Joanna (Meryl Streep), Lui Xing enjoys the spoils of an American education and liberal campus life, bearing down for his eventual dissertation. When he stumbles upon a major discovery involving his pet subject of dark matter, Lui Xing tastes glory. However, his foreign ambition rankles the academic elite, leading to a betrayal that sends the young dreamer down a dangerous path of unstable behavior.
If there's an immediate miracle to celebrate about "Dark Matter," it has to be how the film can consistently introduce cosmology subjects and terminology and not lose the viewer completely. It's an impressive feat from director Chen Shi-Zheng, who generates a shockingly accessible world for his motion picture. Not that "Matter" is only a complex study of the heavens; the feature is a psychological drama first and foremost, taking place on the battlefield of Lui Xing's growing doubt. After all, nothing grabs the viewer faster than the disintegration of genius-level potential, no matter how approachable the lecture room discussions are.
Admittedly, "Matter" cuts a few corners when it comes time to balloon out Lui Xing's mental decomposition. Perhaps the feature was a victim of a hasty editorial push to get the story down to 90 digestible minutes, because the snipped connective tissue is missed. The finished product moves speedily from Lui Xing's introduction to his depression, with mystical inner monologue sequences that play with elemental inspiration left in an unfinished state within an abrupt motion picture. Chen directs with outstanding visual gusto and a gutsy sympathetic perspective, but he's powerless to the almighty edit, with a few too many chunks removed from the narrative to lend the overall picture its ideal psychological thrust.
Holding "Matter" high is the cast, with special attention to Ye Liu's performance as the eager, but ultimately stunted Lui Xing. The character makes an incredible journey from bright-eyed people pleaser to ruin, and the performance finds those notes perfectly, adding a few unexpected touches of anxiety as the character's innocence is pushed back by the established pomposity of faculty egos. Streep and Quinn add detailed supporting work with very little screentime, lending needed dimension to bystander roles.
Visual & Audio:
DVD Talk was provided with a DVD-R screener copy of "Dark Matter" for review. Final A/V quality wasn't available for examination.
"Dark Matter" isn't a perfect film by any means, but I admired its imagination and the weight provided by the performances. The ultimate conclusion of Lui Xing's journey is perhaps a bit too hard to swallow within the context of the film, but that doesn't dilute a strong effort all around to bring a passionate story of mistreated determination to life.