Life imitating art or art imitating life?
The question of who we are, or possibly more importantly, what we are, orbits about the nucleus of director Chen Shi-Zheng’s first feature film "Dark Matter." Set against a backdrop of advanced cosmology and the brilliant scientists at work creating a model on the origins of the universe, the tale is one of obsession, perceived betrayal, and cultures colliding at the speed of light.
Inspired by a true story, the film reveals the very human side of the cutting-edge scientific research taking place within graduate programs at American universities and its attempt to answer questions concerning how and why ordinary matter began to clump together and form galaxies and clusters of galaxies.
Arriving as one of many Chinese scholars provided special visa status during the 1990s to study in the United States, Liu Xing (Liu Ye) is a shining star of theoretical physics and quite anxious to join the university team headed by his hero Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn). Humble, yet brimming with confidence, Liu also envisions winning the Nobel Prize.
Helping him adapt to his strange new world is the wealthy university patron and Sinophile Joanna Silver (Meryl Streep) and Reiser’s secretary Hildy (Blair Brown). Some waters, however, even upon craft fashioned from the best of intentions, are not easily navigated. Once matter loses light, uncertainty accepts a role.
Within astro-physics, "dark matter" initially surfaced as a way of explaining why large bodies interact in the manner they do in the absence of sufficient observable matter to provide for the gravitational forces obviously at work. It later become "scaffolding" in the search for answers posed by "random clumping" as a whole.
With scientists assuming additional undetectable matter as part of the overall "big-bang" model, the term "dark matter" entered the lexicon. Although current studies show it to be six-times more prevalent than ordinary matter within the universe, dark matter is not observed directly, only inferred by the way gravity distorts the images of galaxies behind it a metaphor which prevails throughout the film.
Mutual admiration and excitement play out as Liu enters the select cosmology group put together by Reiser. Liu quickly assumes an orbit of his own, however, when, although de facto protégé to the master, he becomes infatuated with the disciplines inherent to the studies of dark matter.
The new model which has gained Reiser renown and eminence within the scientific community has rejected dark matter as a viable player, however, and therein lies the crux of the confrontation that plays out dramatically on film. Ambition now drives plot as notions of fear and disloyalty accelerate like particles in a cyclotron.
Academic politics prove as complex to the young genius as cosmology itself. Unexpected obstacles surface like so many ripples in the primordial soup actions that create reactions within the law of the conservation of energy. What goes around comes around, although not always cloaked in similar trappings.
One would have to say that this film, indeed, arrives in a "timely" manner, in that New Scientist Magazine recently announced that "the distribution of dark matter has been mapped in 3D for the first time, revealing how the mysterious substance has evolved over the lifetime of the universe." Life imitating art imitating life as it were.
Quite a feat for Cheng Shi-Zheng, a first time filmmaker born in China and a "supernova" in the universe of opera. Now based in New York City, his current project is an opera concerning the somewhat eliptical orbit of the circus world featuring the music of Gorillaz.
The next screening of "Dark Matter" will be Thursday, Jan. 25 at 11:30 a.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City.
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