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Dark Matter Series Review: Slow Burn Sci-Fi

Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Connelly look at each other sitting in a house in the Apple TV+ series "Dark Matter"

Sci-fi thriller Dark Matter struggles to distinguish itself enough from other multiversal stories but it is compelling, pulpy sci-fi.

Series creator: Blake Crouch
Genre: Sci-Fi
Number of episodes: 9
Global streaming Release: May 8, 2024
Where to watch: Apple TV+

Multiversal stories, similar to that of Dark Matter, have quickly become populist content in recent years. This is thanks, in part, to Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame. But prior to that box office behemoth, the multiverse was a concept that mostly stayed within indie films such as Primer, with an occasional multiverse thrown into sci-fi shows that could afford to take a multiversal risk, such as Doctor Who.

Dark Matter finds itself somewhat innocent. The show is compelling in large bursts, and had this series occurred a decade ago, we may have been lauding it. While the fibres and tropes of multiverse tales that Dark Matter uses now feel a little old hat in this current influx of similar stories, the series is engaging, cerebral and highly entertaining.

The show opens with physics professor Jason Dessen (Joel Edgerton, of The Boys in the Boat) teaching a class about Schrödingers Cat, a theory in which a cat is placed inside a box. Theorist Erwin Schrödinger states that the cat is in Superposition: it is both alive and dead inside the box while it is unobserved, proving that matter can be in two states at one time. Jason becomes the figurative cat in Dark Matter, a cerebral sci-fi thriller from Apple and Sony that tackles multiple universes, how the choices we make shape our self-concept and personality, and how the inherent messiness of a life lived can be a beautiful thing. 

After walking back home from the party of best friend Ryan (Jimmi Simpson, of Fool’s Paradise), towards loving wife Danielle (Jennifer Connelly, of Top Gun: Maverick) and 16-year-old son Charlie (Oakes Fegley, of The Fabelmans), protagonist Jason is kidnapped and injected with a strange psychoactive drug. He awakens to a parallel world, one where Jason has been missing for 14 months. It turns out that this parallel world’s version of Jason (hereby referred to as Jason Two) is a rich and famous scientist, having won a major prize in his scientific field. He is also dating therapist Amanda (Alice Braga, of Hypnotic), but he does not have a family — notably one that consists of Daniella as his wife.

But back in Jason’s world, Jason Two has forcibly switched lives with Jason, stealing his family away. Jason, who is at first completely discombobulated by the ordeal, must work out how to get out of  this reality quickly as danger and death lurks within this adjacent world, an environment that has been moulded by Jason Two’s blind ambition and lack of empathy. 

Throughout Dark Matter, Jason, with the help of Amanda, traverses through the multiverse, the emotional labyrinth that are their minds both constricting them from their desires and showing them worlds that could have been. To reach these worlds, they inject a drug that decohere their minds to reality, giving them 24 hours to search for Jason’s world and reunite with his real family. As he visits alternate realities, he slowly learns to appreciate the more specific and minute facets of his life in order to get home to his family. The journey he goes on surmounts to a sci-fi rendition of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. 

Joel Edgerton and Dayo Okeniyi in episode 5 of “Dark Matter,” premiering May 8, 2024 on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+)

The flip between the lives of Jason and Jason Two – Jason’s in the never-ending liminality of endless parallel realities and Jason Two’s acclimatisation to Jason’s world – is signified with a snazzy, if obtrusive, percussive click. Edgerton (who also serves as executive producer) is dynamite in his dual role as Jason Dessen, showcasing the character’s subtle differentiations astutely. From Jason’s despondent and bleak outlook on his situation to Jason Two, who is bridling with an unreleased anger and frustration that his slotting into Jason’s life hasn’t gone as smooth as he had hoped. Braga’s Amanda finds herself as an electric highlight of the show, even if the writing forbids her from having agency until too late, while Connelly is a fantastic foil to both iterations of Jason. 

The show is based on the critically acclaimed novel ‘Dark Matter’ by Blake Crouch, who also acts as showrunner. After the brisk first few episodes that set this plot up, Jason and Amanda’s odyssey into negative space starts to spin its wheels. This is the show’s biggest grievance: that the central episodes mostly feature the duo going through the motions, the two stagnant in their own internal discovery until they run out of ampoules of the drug. So when Amanda – whose position in the narrative is flimsy, solely attached to assisting in Jason’s journey – states the two of them are spinning their wheels inside this literal and metaphorical box, it doesn’t present itself as a meta commentary. Instead, it appears to be a lack of self-awareness from an inexperienced showrunner. 

The rights to Crouch’s novel ‘Dark Matter’ were originally optioned by Sony in 2014, with intentions of a film adaptation. That the middle of the series meanders so much makes a film adaption seem a wiser choice in hindsight. However, even throughout episodes spent wishing it would garner a touch more momentum, the series is a slick endeavour that latches its claws in and keeps you addictingly intrigued all the way to its unpredictable and frantic, pulsating finale. This is in part due to Edgerton’s ability to get audience investment into Jason’s plight through wide soul-gazingly bright, tear-heavy blue eyes, and a twist that feels like a natural inevitability for the story. Still, its odd quirk – a few instances of terrible CGI and a pop song addition into a later episode – leaves more to be desired in making the series as sharp as possible. 

The old adage “it doesn’t reinvent the wheel” seems apt in the case of Dark Matter, a show that struggles in doing its multiversal shenanigans in any way that feels fresh to anyone who has seen stories like these before. It spends multiple episodes setting up the stand-off finale but makes it worthwhile through the sentimental, if a touch silly, streak that runs throughout. The show is nowhere near as smart or as subversive as Crouch appears to think it is, but it is pulpy watchable entertainment even if it makes you want to read the novel for hopefully something with a little more bite.

Watch on Apple TV

Dark Matter premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Watch Dark Matter!

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