DARK MATTER (2007) was quite a shock to me, not the least of which was comprised of how bad the film was as a truth-based tale. As pure cinema, it was also rather dull, silly and lackluster.
The true event on which it's based, consisting of plasma physicist Dr. Gang Lu and his crimes at University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1991, speaks eloquently not only to the suspicion/racism shown toward the Chinese in America, but most loudly to the problem of graduate students and their dissertations. However relevant, all this had nothing to do with the true story.
This weirdly paced, phantasmagoric rendition of the true story stars the beautiful and charismatic Liu Ye (CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER) as Liu Qing, a highly strung theoretical physics student attending some mythical college. His 'doctorate' professor, a true bastard named Jacob Reiser (a very sinister Aidan Quinn), hates the Chinese. When he accepts Liu as his student, one can see the look of a wolf in his eyes. He's going to destroy this particular student because the student is light years ahead of them all.
As a run-up to the film, "The New York Times" ran the true story of this unfortunately unhinged student in its SCIENCE section: "A Tale of Power and Intrigue in the Lab, Based on Real Life" (27 March 2007). It speaks of the pressures of the Chinese college students, especially in the face of the "one-child policy", which places the entire burden for the family on the one child.
What I saw here first and foremost was Einstein's life all over again - something similar was done to him as a college student. Though he did not kill anyone, he certainly lost his mind and it took him a year to recuperate. He wanted nothing to do with science during that year, from age 19 to 20. Einstein, had he been weaker, could easily have done what Dr. Gang Lu did.
The evil Prof. Reiser (Quinn) is nothing like the professor who mentored Gang Lu in real life - but he reminded me of several teachers who had it in for Einstein, and were responsible for his ejection from school. Anyone who fails to see the horrid rat race science has become should see this film.
Admittedly, with unnecessary and weird diversions from Meryl Streep (rich, Chinese-loving matron of the arts) and Eric Avari (I LOVE him - he plays the querulous old has-been professor and I see no point in his character), it's a lot to navigate.
Gang Lu was one of a series of students invited to Iowa (ca. the 1980s) to study plasma physics, the first wave of Chinese students invited after China began to open itself. Many of these first students either failed miserably or "simply disappeared", according to "The New York Times". I ran into such people during my stay at college - they were trying to change America over to communism. I recall telling them they were very wrong if they thought they could do that!
Oddly enough, Dr. Gang Lu, who had been awarded his doctorate in plasma physics in May of 1991, was enraged that another's thesis and not his had been chosen for a $2,500 prize. Dr. Lu apparently saw that other post-graduate doctor as "his perceived rival". Clearly mentally imbalanced, Dr. Lu shot all his victims in what amounts to a childish rage.
What I saw in DARK MATTER was something unfortunate, if I may quote a reviewer from another film: this movie manages to be simple and complex simultaneously. It is also erroneous in its storytelling. We cannot understand Liu Qing without the small details I have revealed here. In the real event, few can say what drove Gang Lu to his terrifying and mad deed.
Dr. Gang Lu killed five and paralyzed one before killing himself. He left five letters, one in Chinese and four in English, which have never been made public and it seems they never will be. All I know is I shiver when I recall that case, because it happened not far from my home. The man was a psychotic brute, who thought nothing of gunning down those who opposed him. Legend has it that when the news first broke, all his Chinese colleagues, when they heard the gunman was Chinese, said it was Gang Lu.
With the way schools, science and racism remain today, it could happen again and again. See this film and take from it as much as you can. Personally, I am deeply disappointed in this art-house pretense instead of a true, dramatic 'retelling' of the tragic story of 28-year-old Dr. Gang Lu. One thing I must protest (sadly, of course) is the film had to try to protect the survivors of the real-life tragedy. If only the producers had obtained some sort of permission to render a realistic telling of that story... but they chose to do this instead. In a way it is a betrayal, because we know of no such crimes in America as this movie shows - in a way it is dishonest suggesting it is even based on a true story.
Let this film, then, stand as well as it can as an object-lesson. I doubt it will do any good.