Meryl Streep plays a wealthy socialite and university patron who befriends a Chinese student in "Dark Matter."
Rampage comes from out of nowhere
There is certainly a movie to be made about the bright, eager Chinese students doing graduate work in American universities -- pack mules in the ivory tower -- and it's easy to see what attracted the parties involved to the sensational real tragedy that inspired this particular film. "Dark Matter," however, has an ambling, soft story arc that veers sharply in the last half-hour, the way a sleepy driver yanks a car back on the road. Too late.
Part of the Best of the West showcase at the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dole Cannery multiplex
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In 1991, Chinese exchange physics student Gang Lu, apparently upset that his thesis subject had been patronizingly overlooked, shot and killed five scientists and fellow students at the University of Iowa and paralyzed another before blowing out his own brains. I say "apparently," because multiple letters Lu wrote to the university explaining his actions -- and mailed months before they were carried out -- have never been released by the school.
"Dark Matter" is based on this academic horror story. Coming out so soon after the Seung-Hui Cho massacre at Virginia Tech adds another whole level of creepiness to the enterprise.
The first two-thirds of "Dark Matter" hint at none of this, save an occasional quick cut to the Asian student looking sweaty and determined, as if he's just come in from a timed run. Chinese actor Liu Ye plays Liu Xing, a brilliant cosmology student recruited as a graduate gofer for a theoretical physicist played by Aidan Quinn, who strikes the right amount of patronizing bonhomie. Meryl Streep plays a sympathetic school sponsor who takes Xing under her wing, but her interests run to cultural exchange, not the cosmos.
With his fellow exchange students, Xing falls for the allure of Western academia, even boasting of marrying a blue-eyed blonde after he wins the Nobel Prize. This settling-in occupies the main portion of the film and is full of pleasant, fairly banal clichés. Although first-time director Chen Shi-zeng, who comes from a previous career staging opera, divides the film into the five Chinese primordial elements. Complete with acts and titles, it's all pretty underwhelming. The vast scientific discoveries are handled by professors looking at scribbled notes and exclaiming "A-ha!"
Xing is surprised to discover, late in the film, that Western academics can be just as ruthless as communist apparatchiks and, ill equipped emotionally to handle the humiliation, takes his guns to town.
There is virtually no foreshadowing, which might be true to life, but we're talking about a movie here, which absolutely requires heightened structure. It's too bad in the case of actor Liu Ye, who is adept at suggesting a moral blank slate, hopeless at life when he's not wrestling with fundamental questions of the universe.
In what is essentially a supporting role, Streep is a revelation at such suggestion, particularly in an unsettling scene when the student attempts to get close to her with gifts of facial cream. Streep looks suspended between heaven and hell; the student merely looks as if he needs an academic adviser.