Dark Matter

Movie review by
James Rocchi, Common Sense Media
Dark Matter Movie Poster Image
Indie drama offers mature teens food for thought.
  • R
  • 2008
  • 90 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Streep's character is a well-off, well-intentioned woman whose interest in Chinese culture is portrayed as the vague affection of a silly tourist. Quinn's character takes advantage of his Chinese students; some of the students attend a church group, but it's clear they're only there for the snacks and social events; one of the students also steals cable. Quinn's character blocks his student's academic progress out of anger and spite.


A Western shootout fantasy sequence features "shooting" but no blood; there are also four realistic graphic murders, and a character commits suicide.


A sexual encounter in a crowded rental flat is shielded by a blanket but still audible to the other residents; characters watch scrambled pornography and discuss the nature of female orgasm; brief shot of a naked back. A conference is described as featuring "Free booze, good food and beautiful -- albeit high-strung -- women." Chinese characters discuss the rumor that American teens are "doing it" by age 13. A scene between Streep and Liu has a sensually charged undertone.


Language includes "bulls--t," "s--t," one non-sexual use of "f--k," and "bastard." A poorly translated toast comes out as "up the bottoms."


Characters drink Heineken; no other visible brands.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Incessant cigarette smoking; cigars are smoked; characters drink hard liquor at social events; characters also drink beer while sunbathing.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that teens aren't likely to be clamoring to see this mature indie drama -- though if they do, its focus on the pressures of academia are likely to give them a lot to think about. A fictional take on a real-life tragedy, it includes mass murder and suicide. In addition to the violence, there are a few brief moments of frank sexuality and a bit of strong language ("s--t," one "f--k"), though it's not very frequent.

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What's the story?

Inspired by a real-life series of events, DARK MATTER follows a Chinese post-graduate cosmology student, Liu Xing (Yi Liu), in his studies in America. Xing is brilliant and driven -- a fact that his advisor, Dr. Reiser (Aidan Quinn), is more than willing to take advantage of. But despite the help and attention provided by Chinese culture buff/philanthropist Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep), Xing has trouble adapting -- and when his work threatens to upstage Reiser's long-standing efforts in the field, Xing finds that he's being shut out of opportunities and advancement. Disgraced, unemployable, and desperate, Xing's despair culminates in a shocking, fatal act.

Is it any good?

The feature-film debut of opera director Chen Shi-Zeng, Dark Matter only looks like a ticking-clock thriller; it's far subtler than that, as cultures clash yet human nature proves to be universal. As Xing's letters home go from optimistic hopes to out-and-out lies, viewers feel a rich, real sense of worry for him; Shi-Zeng captures both bold, beautiful images and intimate character moments. The performers are all superb, especially Liu's work as a bright, confident young man investigating the mysteries of the unseen mass -- dark matter -- that must be somewhere in the universe. And yet he's still battling a language barrier, finding his way in a new culture, and trying to negotiate his relationship with his superior, Dr. Reiser. When Xing notes how "no one pays attention to (dark matter), because they don't see it," he could be talking about himself.

Shi-Zeng isn't just a talented visual director and dramatist; Billy Shebar's carefully-crafted script has playful moments as well, like when the Chinese students, on a field trip to a "pioneer village," act out a Western-themed scenario that's shot like a scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And Xing's attempts to connect with a young woman at a local tea shop -- who confuses cosmology with cosmetology -- are warm and human. When Xing's frustration and despair boil over, the time we've spent with him makes his final, fateful act not merely shocking but also tragic.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the media depicts the pressures of school and academics. Do you think it's realistic? How are the pressures different between high school and college (or, as in this case, postgraduate work)? How do the issues that Liu is facing compare to the ones that have led teenagers to violent acts in high schools? Can you think of other movies that deal with similar themes or topics?

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