8th May 2024

Dark Matter review: uneven multiverse thriller

Joel Edgerton takes on himself in this Apple TV+ series adaptation of a sci-fi book that takes a little too long to get going.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic, who has been reviewing movies and TV series since 2015. He has written for NDTV and SlashFilm.

Joel Edgerton in Dark Matter on Apple TV+
Joel Edgerton as Jason Dessen in Dark Matter // Photo: Apple

“Are you happy with your life? Or have you ever wondered what else you could have been?” This is the setup and the premise of Dark Matter—the new Apple TV+ sci-fi series—that’s been created by the very author who wrote the novel, Blake Crouch. It’s a rarity in the world of TV adaptations. Unlike what the title might imply, Dark Matter essentially explores the infinite possibilities of the multiverse. The choices we make, and the roads not taken. There are a bunch of heady ideas floating through the series—some are given the treatment they deserve, though others are not tackled as deeply as they could have. The characters, outside of the protagonist, also suffer. Crouch does expand on the book’s rather straightforward third act in the final two episodes.

Dark Matter takes too long to get going

At the same time, Dark Matter is longer than it needs to be. Aren’t nine hour-long episodes ultimately too much for a book that was under 350 pages? It takes about four episodes for the new Apple series to engage you and get going. That’s primarily because Dark Matter spends too much time explaining and sketching out how its multiverse functions. We live in a world where we are surrounded by fictional multiverses. Be it DC with The Flash, the animated Spider-Verse, or the ongoing exploration in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think viewers can handle it if you just jump into the thick of it from the get-go. But with Dark Matter, it’s clear the show doesn’t trust its audience to be as smart. And as such, the show feels a few steps behind unnecessarily.

Dark Matter also suffers from narrative conveniences in a few places. The penultimate episode blows open the show’s premise as it offers up exponential consequences of a single decision. But it feels a tad too tailored. Like the Apple series was waiting on our protagonist to complete his journey before dropping the bomb—it feels artificial. That said, Dark Matter still packs power, and the ending feels poetic. It helps that there’s a very primal drive underpinning the show’s stakes. It’s completely self-serious and sincere, though. If you were hoping for the kind of multiversal shenanigans offered up by comic book movies, this isn’t the show for you. Dark Matter is ponderous and thrilling, sobering and reflective, and interested in dissecting what makes us who we are.

It’s Joel Edgerton vs. Joel Edgerton

Jason Dessen (Joel Edgerton) has a satisfied albeit boring life in Chicago. He lives with his art gallery curator wife Daniela née Vargas (Jennifer Connelly) and their 15-year-old son Charlie (Oakes Fegley). He teaches physics at a university to a very disinterested class. Meanwhile, his college best friend Ryan Holder (Jimmi Simpson) has won a prestigious prize that opens the door to grant money. Ryan feels Jason should’ve won it, but it’s a path he gave up on years ago. So, when Ryan invites him to join his multimillion-dollar biotech company that’s going to be based out of San Francisco, Jason hesitates. His life is in Chicago, after all. There’s probably a part of him that would’ve enjoyed the work and the accolades, but he chose family over it all.

Mild spoilers ahead—the kind in the trailer above.

On the way back home, Jason’s life is turned upside down. He’s beaten up, kidnapped, and drugged by someone who knows him. When he wakes up, he meets therapist Amanda Lucas (Alice Braga) and CEO Leighton Vance (Dayo Okeniyi). Jason is told he’s the co-founder and chief science officer and that he’s been gone for 14 months and 10 days. Wait, what? He’s asked all sorts of funny questions that he has no answers for. Back at the Dessens, the kidnapper, who looks exactly like Jason, takes the original’s place. While Jason One is freaking out in a mysterious facility, Jason Two the orchestrator is trying to blend in. It’s clear he’s not from around here and he might be the one Amanda and Leighton are looking for. But what’s his goal?

A dizzying taste of the multiverse

Naturally, the two Jasons start changing each other’s universe. While Jason One was drifting through life, Jason Two has clarity over what he wants. He’s a better professor and a more interested husband, though he’s also guilty of poor advice when it comes to his son. Meanwhile, Jason One is bumbling through the other world, where he discovers he never married Daniela (who is a much bigger artist) and ended up taking his research work a lot more seriously (he won the prize, not Ryan).

Jennifer Connelly in Dark Matter on Apple TV+
Jennifer Connelly as Daniela Vargas in Dark Matter // Photo: Apple

Soon, the ripples created by the switch begin to cause much bigger changes and problems. (Kudos to the simple and tidy audio cue that conveys when we flip between dimensions. It’s a great use of sound design.) Through their eyes, Dark Matter gives us a dizzying taste of the multiverse. All Jason One wants is to find his way back home—but that’s easier said than done. He finds himself in some bizarre situations—where he will end up is part of the excitement in Dark Matter’s middle run—as he tries to grapple with the complexity of the task at hand.

As for Jason Two, he craves perfection from his new world because he’s worked so hard for it. But what he doesn’t realise is that he’s moulding the world for his own happiness and ignoring all the other elements that ought to be considered. Dark Matter is quite intriguing with the psychoanalytic bits—Amanda plays an integral role here—and the Apple series, on some level, feels like therapy for us and the protagonist.

Dark Matter asks, “What makes us us?”

Edgerton plays the dual roles—that are somewhat poles apart—quite well. He conveys hopelessness in one, a family man who just wants to get back to what he had. On the other side, he comes across as a frustrated and menacing genius who operates with no boundaries.

For all its lofty pop physics, what makes Dark Matter tick is that it’s rooted in something universal. It’s not about the fate of the world or some nonsense like that. That emotional investment is smartly carried over into the exploration of the multiverse too. Fear and subconscious desires play a big role, which helps to bring out subtext in a medium that isn’t particularly suited to it. In turn, it hits at how vast and uncaring the universe can be. If there are infinite realities out there, that also means they contain infinite horrors. The kinds you would never imagine.

Alice Braga in Dark Matter on Apple TV+
Alice Braga as Amanda Lucas in Dark Matter // Photo: Apple

A lot of multiverse stories are about the choices that we make. Dark Matter notes it’s also about choosing to make room for other people’s choices. The Apple TV+ show is really good when it’s good. With two very different characters paired up, we’re put on a wild journey that makes them question everything they know. If you take away what we do, the people who surround us, and the world we inhabit, where does that leave us? Where do our personalities come from? Who are we, underneath it all? But for all its big questions, it’s also uneven, overlong, and doesn’t find its footing soon enough.

If only we could look up all the other versions of Dark Matter out in the multiverse.

The first two episodes of Dark Matter are out Wednesday, May 8 on Apple TV+. A new episode will release every Wednesday until June 26.

Akhil Arora

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