‘Dark Matter’ Review: Apple’s Sad Dad Sci-Fi Series Is Handsome but Shallow

by 24USATVMay 9, 2024, 1 a.m. 25
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Both broadly and specifically, “Dark Matter” is a TV series made with me in mind — or, at the very least, a version of me that could exist. Speaking generally, the Apple drama asks big questions about how the choices we make come to define who we are: Would I be different today if I had pursued a different career, married a different woman, or raised a different family? In small ways — the stuff of daydreams — the answer is, “Yes, of course, I’d be different.” In a different job, I wouldn’t be writing these words right now because I’d be napping in a hammock off the coast of Ireland, as a professional hammock tester specializing in cold weather climates. But aside from changes in what I’d be doing, what about who I am? Would a new profession, or a new partner, or a new home-life alter my personality? My worldview? My identity? Again, the answer is, “Yeah, probably.” But how? To what lengths? For better or worse?

If these kind of questions appeal to you, then a) “Dark Matter” will undoubtedly strike a chord or two over its nine-episode season, and b) a midlife crisis may be looming. Asking “what if” is natural. It can even be healthy, but if you’re always fixated on what could’ve been instead of appreciating what you have, what you’ve done, and what you’re working toward, then you may wake up one day and throw your life away over a new car, a new partner, or some other fleeting symbol of freedom.

Jason Dessen (Joel Edgerton), the protagonist of “Dark Matter,” doesn’t do this. Not exactly. But the science-fiction series, adapted by Blake Crouch from his 2016 novel of the same name, still serves as an allegory for a middle-class white guy’s midlife crisis; one he’s forced into, instead of opting in himself. Filled with alternate universes, technical jargon, and a handful of decent twists, the self-serious series is a serviceable substitute for the real thing — a way to engage with existential questions without risking the crisis of playing them out yourself. But despite checking off interest after interest on my personal inventory of favorites, “Dark Matter’s” individual attributes can’t escape the story’s bland generalities. It’s a show shaped so broadly, even the specifics that coincidentally click with yours truly are too rounded off to resonate in the long-run.

What specifics, you may ask? Let’s come back to that, since I bet even more of you are asking what “Dark Matter” is about. Like “It’s a Wonderful Life” without the holiday cheer, Apple’s black-and-blue hued drama follows Jason, your typical Midwestern husband and father. He works at a community college in Chicago as a physics professor. Before work, he teaches his teenage son, Charlie (Oakes Fegley), how to drive, and after work he cooks dinner for the family. He loves his wife, Daniela (Jennifer Connelly) — loves her — but he’s still… discontented. His colleagues are winning prizes and starting companies, while he’s regurgitating old info to a bunch of kids who don’t even stick around for the end of his lectures. He’s still a good dad and a good husband, but his spark is fading.

Then, on a rainy night fit for self-pity, Jason has a little too much to drink and, as he wanders through his North side neighborhood, he’s attacked. A man in a white mask pulls a gun on him, drives Jason to an abandoned warehouse, and injects him with a mysterious serum. “Are you happy with your life?” the man growls in Jason’s ear, shortly before his victim loses consciousness. “Have you ever wondered what else you could’ve been?”

Moments later, he’s shoved into a tall black cube, things get a little murky, and the next thing he knows, there are people in radiation-proof suits cutting his clothes off, sticking him in a high-pressure shower, and interrogating him about where he’s been. They tell him he’s been gone for 14 months. They want to help him. They call him Jason or Dr. Dessen, but he’s not who they think. Here, in this universe, Jason Dessen became the chief science officer and co-founder of a mega-successful engineering laboratory. He won awards, he’s even famous. But he’s not married. His son doesn’t exist. And as nice as it may seem to be rich and idolized, this life isn’t the one he wants.

Jason realizes this immediately, which is part of the problem with “Dark Matter.” Our lead character doesn’t have to change — not really. Maybe he needed a reminder that what he had was pretty great, but he’s not tempted to indulge in his professional fantasy for one second. Instead, he starts searching for answers: Who did this to him? What happened to his old life? And, most importantly, how does he get back to his family?

The enormous black cube (often called “the box”) is the key, and Jason figures that out pretty fast, too. “Dark Matter’s” pacing helps alleviate some of its shapelessness; one episode bleeds into the next (like streaming TV‘s most dreaded end result: a nine-hour movie), but at least they move with urgency and curiosity. Learning how the box works and seeing the various realities it reveals to Jason is inviting enough, and Crouch (who writes or co-writes most of the episodes) makes ample time for the audience to reflect on the same questions Jason considers; questions about marriage, responsibility, and fulfillment.

“Dark Matter” astutely recognizes that the building blocks of a healthy relationships are made up of little things and big things alike; not just what you know about the other person, but the meaning within seemingly insignificant details that build intimacy and actions that convey real care (as opposed to superficial or self-serving gestures). The romance works, although Connelly’s gallery manager and artist isn’t given the same opportunity to explore (internally or externally) as the Oscar-winning actress deserves. Much more time is dedicated to VFX-enhanced shots of multiple Chicagos in multiple realities, which brings us back to the specific aspects of “Dark Matter” that seem tailored to me.

First and foremost, I love Chicago. I love the Chicago Cubs and, against my best judgment, the Chicago Bears (despite not winning a Super Bowl in my lifetime). I love the city’s skyline, I love the “L” trains, and I love Pequod’s Pizza. I love the Logan Park neighborhood, which includes the first hotel I stayed at with my wife and sits just adjacent to our second apartment together. On top of that, I’m a sucker for aching romances, provocative, big-picture dramas, and even Joel Edgerton. (“Warrior” hive, rise up.)

But despite these personalized draws going in, “Dark Matter” doesn’t match them with incisive character revelations or fresh profundities. Notable epiphanies and lasting meaning are glaringly absent, which feels all the more unjustifiable since the series is so devoid of fun. It’s unflagging gloom and one-note characters limit its capacity to shake anything loose within the audience, and I say that as someone who was ready and willing for the show to do exactly that. If it’s not hitting for me, an admittedly easy mark, I can’t imagine it will play any better for those of you without ties to the Windy City, without the sentimental soft-spot for love stories, or without a healthy respect for Edgerton and Connelly.

So if you can’t shake your own lingering “what if’s,” maybe give this a go before blowing up your life. Otherwise, book a long weekend in Logan Square. I know just the place to stay.

“Dark Matter” premieres Wednesday, May 8 on Apple TV+ with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly through the finale (Episode 9) on June 26.

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