The 1991 case of a Chinese student who went off the deep end at an American university is dramatized to intriguingly esoteric but ultimately unsatisfying effect in "Dark Matter."

The 1991 case of a Chinese student who went off the deep end at an American university is dramatized to intriguingly esoteric but ultimately unsatisfying effect in “Dark Matter.” Critiquing both the relentless Eastern drive for success and the insular, self-serving nature of Western academia, this debut feature from opera and theater helmer Chen Shi-Zheng never fully succeeds in burrowing under its protagonist’s skin, despite conspicuous effort. While Meryl Streep in a substantive role reps a bizarre selling point, pic’s superficial aftertaste will limit it strictly to fest exposure and very limited arthouse play.

Structured in five acts, each labeled with a different Chinese character representing one of the five elements, the story begins with student Liu Xing (Liu Ye) arriving at a Western university, where he’s invited by cosmology professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) to join his research team. Brilliant, hard-working, obsequious to a fault, Liu Xing so impresses Reiser that the professor initially takes him under his wing.

Liu Xing’s other significant mentor is Joanna Silver (Streep), a kindly patron of the university with a special interest in Chinese culture. It’s Joanna who first hears Liu Xing’s scientific theory about dark matter, which shapes most of the universe — an impenetrable concept that has driven astrophysicists crazy for years, and which is explicated here in barely comprehensible terms for a layperson. When Liu Xing decides to write his dissertation on dark matter, Reiser shoots down his proposal, not least because it threatens his own widely accepted model.

Suddenly facing academic ruin, Liu Xing finds his already strained psyche beginning to unravel; the pic attempts to hint at this early on by inserting brief, disturbing shots of the student looking ominously determined. But no amount of foreshadowing can conceal the tale’s essential banality and lack of psychological depth — a shame, since Liu Ye is rather good at suggesting the moral blankness behind his character’s ingratiating manner.

There’s a smart movie to be made about the often unhealthy pressure Asians face to work hard and succeed, but even as a tale of one student’s destructive choices, Billy Shebar’s script fails to lay the necessary groundwork for Liu Xing’s sudden shift into violence. The result is a middling academic drama that passes pleasantly enough for roughly an hour before detouring into a tacked-on tragic climax.

Quinn delivers the pic’s best performance, imbuing his outwardly friendly, laid-back professor (“Call me Jake”) with a hint of condescension that prickles from the first frame. As a woman who encourages Liu Xing, then watches helplessly as he slides toward disaster, Streep brings some warmth and humanity to the role even as one wonders what attracted her to this material.

Aside from its use of occasional exploding light effects that resemble supernovas — an attempt to forge a thematic connection between Liu Xing’s astronomical theories and personal neuroses — the pic has no real visual style to speak of. Other tech credits are adequate.

Dark Matter

Production

An American Sterling Prods. presentation in association with Saltmill. Produced by Janet Yang, Mary Salter, Andrea Miller. Executive producers, Kirk D'Amico, Linda Chiu. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. Screenplay, Billy Shebar; story, Chen, Shebar.

Crew

Camera (color, Sony HD cam), Oliver Bokelberg; editor, Michael Berenbaum, Pam Wise; music, Van Dyke Parks; music supervisor, Hal Willner; production designer, Dina Goldman; costume designer, Elizabeth Caitlin Ward; line producer, Jeff T. Miller; assistant director, Craig Steiner; casting, Ellen Parks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 23, 2007. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Liu Xing - Liu Ye Jacob Reiser - Aidan Quinn Joanna Silver - Meryl Streep

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more